Posted by: ghostdawg2 | September 23, 2009

Who needs the Samoa beach? by / Saturday August 08 2009

A number of friends have told Skyler and me how bewildered they are that we didn’t spend time on the beach during our recent stay in Samoa.

We immersed our bodies in streams and in a hotel pool, but apparently these experiences don't count as 'real' swims, because they weren't preceded and followed by hours spent lounging on golden sand in the sun, or in the shade of a coconut tree. 'You didn't go to the beach - what did you do over there?' one friend asked us.

There is a widespread belief in New Zealand that the only reason to venture to an island in the South Pacific is to 'escape to the beach'. Nations like Fiji and the Cook Islands have built substantial tourism industries around their many excellent beaches; Samoa, a latecomer to the tourist game, is trying to attract some of the Kiwis and Aussies who used to visit Fiji by distinguishing its shambolic but good-natured democracy from Fiji's military dictatorship.

It remains to be seen whether this marketing strategy will be successful - ethical beach bums may be disappointed by the relative paucity of golden sand on the rocky shores of Upolu and Savai'i islands - but some of the less desirable elements of what economists like to call a 'tourism industry infrastructure' have already fallen into place. The southern outskirts of the Samoan capital Apia, for instance, now feature a series of chic, abominably expensive restaurants with names like Scalinis and Giordanos - places which serve no purpose except to reassure holidaying residents of St Heliers and Ponsonby that they are not, in fact, holidaying in the Third World. After a hard day sunbathing, there's nothing like a stylish Italian meal concocted by an imported chef. Ostentatiously exclusive beach resorts have appeared on the northwestern coast of Upolu, close to the airport, and on the eastern coast of Savai'i.

It's true that the islands of the Pacific have some very desirable beaches, but so does France, and nobody who visits that country and neglects to lie in the sun on the Riviera coast is regarded as an oddball when he returns from his holiday. Why do Kiwi travellers like to learn about the histories and cultures of European nations, but not about the histories and cultures of Pacific nations? Why do we insist on reducing societies like Samoa and Fiji to a collection of beaches adorned with picturesque natives?

It seems to me that New Zealanders have still not shaken off the idea that societies like Samoa are essentially non-historical. When we think about the history of a European nation like France or Britain, we think of a succession of eras, and the development and modification of cultures; when we think about the past of a society like Samoa or Fiji, we think of a single, essential culture which contact with the 'outside' world can only serve to corrode. We will therefore consent to view the performance of a 'traditional' dance and song - often a confection of cliches dreamed up by a papalagi resort owner - as we relax with martinis after a day on the beach, but we flinch from learning about the modern history and contemporary cultures of the island on which we are holidaying.

The narrow focus of the Pacific tourism industry has at least two significant effects. In small, tourism-dependant states like Fiji, it leads to wildly uneven development, as regions blessed with pleasant beaches and proximity to international airports - the zone between Nadi and Suva on the main Fijian island of Viti Levu, for instance - attract the lion's share of investment in roads and other infrastructure, and less desirable regions miss out.

In New Zealand and, I suspect, Australia, the obsession with lying on beaches means that people can visit nations like Fiji again and again without gaining any sort of understanding about the history and social dynamics of the places. I remember going to a dinner which turned into an argument about Fiji, and about the military government of Frank Banimarama. One of the dinner guests slammed Bainimarama as an anti-Indian racist, and said that he should be 'wiped out', along with Sitiveni Rabuka, George Speight and others involved in earlier Fijian coups. Another guest strong disagreed with this, and claimed that the indigenous people of Fiji needed their rights protected by a special form of government, because they were still struggling to adjust to the changes contact with the West had brought.

The other dinner guests lined up with one or another of the two people who had started to argue, but what no one seemed to realise is that Frank Bainimarama has nothing at all to do with Fijian chauvinists like Rabuka and Speight, and that he has justified his coup and his government by presenting himself as the defender of the rights of Fiji's Indian minority. All of the people sitting around the table had been to Fiji, and many of them had visited the country since Bainimarama's coup, yet none had the most basic understanding of the political situation there. They had all spent their time in Fiji lying on the beach.

I'm not sure whether either my mocking friends or the tourism operators will notice, but I'm going to sketch out three possible alternatives to a beach-bound holiday on Samoa in a series of posts to this blog over the next few days. There are certainly other tours which could be devised - the ones I'll be offering reflect my particular enthusiasms, rather than the limitations of Samoa.

Let's begin with the Samoan Freedom Struggle Tour


At the beginning of the twentieth century Samoa was divided between Germany and America. The Germans got the two largest islands, Upolu and Savai'i, while the Americans took the small eastern island of Tutuila, which has an excellent harbour. In 1914 New Zealand troops arrived in Apia, and seized control of Germany's colony on behalf of the British Empire and the Allied powers which were confronting the Kaiser on the battlefields of Europe. The German administration of Samoa had been conducted by paternalistic but relatively competent intellectuals: New Zealand preferred to hand the job of governing the islands over to a succession of deeply racist and utterly incompetent military men, small town mayors, and high country sheep farmers.

Samoan opposition to New Zealand rule hardened after Kiwi bureaucrats allowed a boat carrying the Spanish flu into the colony in 1918, and then stood by and watched, refusing offers of medical assistance from America, as the disease killed 22% of the inhabitants of Upolu and Savai'i. New Zealand attempts to 'beautify' and 'rationalise' villages by tearing up hibiscus hedges and trees and placing fale in tidy rows further angered Samoans. By the mid-1920s, an opposition movement called 'the Mau' had coalesced around a young and handsome nobleman called Tamasese and a wealthy, stupendously fat half-caste trader named Olaf Nelson. Samoans refused to pay taxes to the New Zealand authorities and refused to work in plantations, bringing the economy to a standstill. They established an alternative government and an alternative police force, and held regular protest processions. The colonial authorities exiled and jailed Mau leaders, but they could neither break the movement nor provoke it to violence.

At the end of 1929, in a display of frustration and panic, New Zealand police aimed a machine gun into a Mau demonstration in central Apia, killing Tamasese and eight others. In the aftermath of this massacre Mau activists fled Apia and hid in the deep valleys and mountainous forests of Upolu; a force of marines was despatched from New Zealand on the HMS Dunedin to hunt for them. The New Zealand forces marched backwards and forwards across Upolu, raiding villages, smashing up fale, and taking women and elderly men away for questioning. A few low-level activists were captured, and a small boy was shot in the back and killed, but the leaders of the Mau remained elusive, even when a Tiger Moth biplane flew over Upolu trying to spot them in the forest. In New Zealand, criticism of the repression of the Mau movement grew, with Labour Party leader Harry Holland asking angry questions in parliament.

As the sick bay of the HMS Dunedin filled up with men felled by malaria and dengue fever, a fresh detachment of troops began to train at a base in Paraparaumu in preparation for deployment to the troublesome colony. Lacking any alternative, the Ward government intended to use a civilian vessel to transport the men to Apia, but this plans was foiled when the Seaman's Union announced that its members would refuse to work any such ship. Partly because of the union's stand, the reinforcements from Paraparaumu never made it to Samoa. In 1935 Labour came to power in New Zealand, anti-Mau laws were scrapped, and Olaf Nelson was allowed to return from exile. In 1962, Samoa finally became independent.

A Few Directions

On your way from the airport to Apia, stop at the village of Lepea, which was the home of Olaf Nelson and a major centre of the Mau movement. In the middle of the village, on the left hand side of the road, you'll see a large monument to Tamasese, who was brought, dying, to Lepea after being machine gunned by the police on the date Samoans remember as 'Black Saturday'. Tamasese died surrounded by his family and supporters, and his last words are recorded on the monument. Their English translation is:

My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in peace. If I die, peace must be maintained at any price.

Look across the road and you'll see the old centre of Lepea, which was subjected to one of the New Zealand authorities' 'beautification' campaigns in the early 1920s. The straight rows of fales, lack of gardens and trees, and 'English village green' all reflect the obsession of the imperialists with Anglicising the Samoan way of life.

Carry on down the road, to the next village of Vaimoso, which is nowadays a suburb of Apia. Vaimoso was the place where Tamasese was living in 1924, when he refused an order to destroy a hibiscus hedge near his house. This event marked the beginning of his confrontation with Samoa's rulers. On the left hand side of the road in the middle of Vaimoso you can see the remains of the bandstand which was the centre of the alternative government the Mau established in the late '20s. This was the place where villages brought supplies of food and unofficial 'tax' payments, in defiance of the New Zealand authorities; it was also the locus of the large unofficial police force which the Mau established as an alternative to New Zealand law. Most of the bandstand was destroyed by a cyclone in 2004, but the numerous hibiscus hedges that grow around Vaimoso are more durable memorials to the spirit of the Mau.

When you make it to the centre of Apia, drive down Beach Road until you reach the old police station, where New Zealanders fired their machine gun at a massive Mau demonstration on Saturday, December the 28th, 1929. Tamasese was hit after he rushed to the front of the demonstration and shouted at the police to stop the shooting. Further down Beach Road, just past Aggie Grey's hotel, is the bridge over the Vaisigano Stream, where demonstrators massed before the fateful rally.

Take a drive through Upolu's interior to Safata Bay on the south coast of the island, where New Zealand forces sometimes based themselves during the hunt for the Mau. From the isolated villages around the bay, police and marines slogged into the jungle-covered mountains where the Mau hid.

Take a ferry to Savai'i, and on the way you'll notice Apolima, the tip of an ancient volcano that sits in the strait between Samoa's two main islands, surrounded by strong currents. The Mau leaders Faumauina and Afamasaga and were banished here in 1927. They quickly converted all of the island's one hundred residents to the Mau.

Faumauina is an interesting character: as a young man, he was a supporter of New Zealand, and he was even picked to be the leader of the Fetu (the word means 'Star'), a paramilitary youth group which was established to offer support to the colonial authorities and to spread 'civilised, British' values amongst Samoans. Later, though, he turned against the colonists, to the extent that he became the leader of the Mau after the killing of Tamasese.

Drive around Savai'i to the village of Asau, at the northwestern edge of the island. This is the place where Tamasese was banished, after he refused orders to destroy his hibiscus hedge in 1924. In traditional Samoan society, banishment from one's village was the worst punishment short of death, but it could only be imposed after proper deliberations by a village fono (council). New Zealand administrators infuriated Samoans when they appropriated the punishment, and began to inflict it arbitrarily on noblemen like Tamasese. After Tamasese returned from Savai'i, piloting an outrigger canoe, he was sent to Mt Eden Prison in Auckland.

When you get back to Apia, drive out on the Mulinuu peninsula, at the western end of the city's harbour, and take a look at Samoa's parliament, as well as the Pulenuu fale, which is the building where MPs meet members of village fono to negotiate the coordination of central and village government. The highly decentralised nature of Samoan government, and the continued administration of swathes of land by fono, are reflections of the ideology of the Mau movement, which insisted that 'fa'a Samoa' - the 'Samoan way' - offered a framework for national development superior to the 'modernisation' programmes drawn up by New Zealand colonists.

My sources for this potted history are Michael J Field's Mau: Samoa's Struggle for Freedom (Polynesian Press, 1991) and Malama Meleisa's The Making of Modern Samoa (University of the South Pacific, 1987). Both books are well worth reading, even if you're not contemplating a trip to Samoa.

You might, of course, come across the odd nice beach during your travels to these sites associated with the Samoan independence struggle...

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