This is a book about Ta’isi O.F. Nelson that sets his life in the context of 20th century colonialism and the British Empire.
This was a period in which race was the justification for colonial rule in Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. Colonial officials told themselves stories about how their regimes were for the benefit of the colonised people they ruled. Believing they belong to a superior race, European colonisers claimed that colonialism was a project to civilise the child-like natives.
The colonial race-based order was one in which white people ruled brown people. The racist narratives of those times depicted mixed-race people, half-castes, as those who could upset and subvert the colonial order. Those with family connections on both sides of the imposed racial divide were regarded with prejudice and suspicion.
Professor Damon Salesa has written about this in his book Racial Crossings, showing how maintaining racial hierarchies was central to colonial rule throughout the British Empire. To divide and conquer, the colonisers had to ensure that mixed-race people were marginalised and mistrusted.
If the natives were ungrateful and objected to the loss of their basic rights under colonial laws, there must be some villain who was misleading them and who must be silenced. The same was said of Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.
In the case of Samoa the colonial rulers and their political allies in New Zealand blamed Ta’isi. He was a rich, successful, respected man who supported the objections of other Samoan leaders to laws that deprived them of basic rights. And worse, he was a half-caste classified as a European.
Ta’isi was the scapegoat. He was blamed as an agitator for supporting the just cause of the Samoans to govern themselves or, at least to have a say in how they were governed. Unable to admit to the injustice of their policies and the growing rebellion against them by Samoan leaders, they blamed Ta’isi as the agitator and the sponsor of the Mau. These colonial administrators preferred to believe that the simple natives could not have hatched ideas of justice and equality and rights for themselves. So Ta’isi was singled out for blame. The story they told the world was that Ta’isi was not a ‘real’ Samoan, he was a half-caste, and when he criticised the administration, only his business interests motivated him.
They said that he, Ta’isi, was not only a troublemaker but also an exploiter who cheated and misled the Samoans. This allegation has been around for many years and I am very glad to see that Dr O’Brien has presented facts that disprove it.
In the New Zealand colonial administration’s efforts to separate part-Samoan business operators and planters from their Samoan side, they introduced a government-subsidised copra-buying scheme and placed the confiscated German plantations under management by the colonial government. In doing this it could be argued that they helped to destroy Samoa’s agricultural economy.
In his struggle for justice Ta’isi had resources that no other Samoan leaders had, and so he gave them generously and wholeheartedly. He had a wide circle of influential friends around the world, including famous Maori leaders of his time. He was able to write in elegant, articulate English as well as Samoan, and he wrote hundreds of letter and articles to support the cause of Samoan self-government. He was able to travel to Geneva at his own expense to try to make Samoa’s case to the League of Nations, and the story of how he was treated there is very shameful.
As a punishment by the colonial authorities, Ta’isi was found guilty of treason in court – without evidence. He was ridiculed, vilified, slandered, exiled, deported, imprisoned and ruined financially.
Dr O’Brien has meticulously researched the life of Ta’isi; a life that was both tragic and inspiring. Until now his struggle for justice and the rights of the Samoan people has never been completely told. A number of Samoans have written about the Mau; myself, Maualaivao Albert Wendt, Leiataua Kilifoti Eteuati, Toesulusulu Damon Salesa and other scholars such as Michael Field, Peter Hempenstall and Noel Rutherford, but none of us have said much about Ta’isi. Until now his story has been barely told and now, in telling it, Dr O’Brien has provided the deepest historical account ever written of Colonial Samoa between the two World Wars.
Dr O’Brien has noted that the one source of information on Ta’isi’s life that was not accessible to her was his writing in Samoan language. In this regard I must point out that she, as an Australian, was able to obtain research awards in New Zealand and Australia to do her research. Her awards are government-funded programs. For us in Samoa, there are no government funds to enable us to study for higher degrees in our own country, let alone to do research on our history. I hope this situation will be addressed by current leaders.
In conclusion, I congratulate Dr O’Brien on her excellent work which every Samoan should read.
And I salute the memory of Ta’isi O. F. Nelson – a great Samoan. He was indeed the navigator, the tautai, who provided wind for our sails to help set us on our journey towards independence, enabling us to become the first independent Pacific Island State.
Faamalo le tauivi, malo le sa’ili malo. Ua e sa’a fa’aoti le utu a le faimea – lea ua ‘ae’ae Samoa i au galuega. Soifua
National University of Samoa
Latest posts by Professor Meleisea Leasiolagi Malama Meleisea (see all)
- Review of Tautai: Samoa, World History and the Life of O.F. Nelson - August 21, 2017