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The Mau Movement: Samoa's Fight for Independence Against New Zealand's Brutal Colonial Rule

by Joey Nanai  I    14th May 2024

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The Samoan Islands: A Coveted Polynesian Paradise
The Samoan Islands, nestled in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, have a rich history that spans over 3,000 years. This Polynesian paradise, located 3,000 kilometers north of New Zealand, was fiercely fought over by the British, Germans, and Americans in the late 1800s. Drawn to its strategic port and bountiful resources, the colonizers drew a line through the middle of the map, dividing the islands between them - the eastern islands going to the Americans, the west to the Germans, and the British getting concessions in other parts of the world.

New Zealand's Disastrous Colonial Rule
In the aftermath of World War I, New Zealand, desperate to get into the colonizing game, took over the administration of Western Samoa on behalf of the British Empire. Sending a sheep farmer from Southland, Colonel Robert Logan, to govern the islands, New Zealand's military-led administration came with a poor understanding of the local people and a heavy hand.

Oppressive Policies and the Devastating Influenza Outbreak
Under New Zealand's rule, the Samoan people faced a crippling whitewash of their social structure, as the colonial administrators stripped chiefs of their titles and power, and focused everything on the administrator himself. This, coupled with the economic downturn, led to widespread anti-New Zealand sentiment among the Samoans. The situation only worsened when, in November 1918, New Zealand allowed the Talune, a ship carrying the Spanish influenza, to dock in Apia Harbor. This catastrophic decision nearly wiped out a quarter of the Samoan population, leaving a lasting trauma on the islands

The Rise of the Mau Movement
The scars of Samoa's colonial past and the anguish of the devastating influenza outbreak fueled the rise of the Mau movement, a revolutionary movement for Samoa's independence. The Mau had its roots in the earlier German colonial era, with leaders like Lauaki Namulau'ulu Mamoe being exiled to Saipan for their resistance. Now, the seeds were being sown for the Mau to rise again, with the catch-cry "Samoa for the Samoans" becoming a rallying call for the nation. Prominent Samoan leaders like Tupua Tamasese III and Taisi Olaf Frederick Nelson were at the forefront of the movement, organizing committees to work against the New Zealand administration.

New Zealand's Brutal Crackdown on the Mau Movement
The New Zealand government, sensing the growing threat of the Mau, systematically tried to squash the movement. In 1928, they banished Taisi Olaf Nelson and three others from Samoa, in an attempt to humiliate the Mau members. When this failed to quell the resistance, the colonial administrators resorted to more drastic measures.

The Tragic Events of "Black Saturday"
On December 28, 1929, a peaceful protest march by the Mau in Apia Harbor turned deadly when the New Zealand police opened fire on the unarmed protesters. In a shocking act of violence, close to 60 people were injured, and 11 were killed, including the Mau's talismanic figurehead and leader, High Chief Tupua Tamasese. Despite Tupua Tamasese's dying plea for peace, rather than seeking justice or accountability, the New Zealand government doubled down on its crackdown. They brought in more police and even sent the Royal Air Force to hunt down the men of the Mau, further fueling the resistance.

The Resilience of the Samoan People
The Samoan people's resilience in the face of this brutal colonial rule was truly remarkable. When the male leaders of the Mau were targeted, the women stepped up, forming new leadership and strategies to keep the momentum of the resistance moving forward.


A Legacy of Nonviolent ResistanceTupua Tamasese's dying words, "My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it as it was spilt in maintaining peace," cemented his legacy as a champion of nonviolent resistance, echoing the philosophies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. before them.

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The Long Road to Apology and Reconciliation

It would take decades for the New Zealand government to acknowledge the injustices it had committed in Samoa. In 2002, Prime Minister Helen Clark formally apologized to the Samoan people for the "inexcusable actions and attitudes" of the colonial rulers. However, the attitudes that contributed to that colonialist rule are still present today, as evidenced by the comments about Pacific people on social media. The story of the Mau movement and New Zealand's brutal suppression of Samoa's fight for independence remains an important part of history that is often omitted from the pages of New Zealand's history books.

Honouring the Sacrifices of the Mau Movement

The Mau movement stands as a testament to the Samoan people's unwavering spirit and their determination to reclaim their rightful place in the Pacific. The sacrifices of the Mau leaders and the countless Samoans who suffered under New Zealand's colonial rule must be remembered and honoured, lest we forget the lessons of the past and the ongoing struggle for self-determination and justice.

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