Day NZ took Samoa from Germany

By Vaimoana Tapaleao

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Logan reads out the proclamation at the courthouse. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Logan reads out the proclamation at the courthouse. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Live video coverage of the national ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of New Zealand's Occupation of German Samoa from 4pm

Mele Ioelu still remembers running towards the village church when the sirens went off - signalling that the soldiers were coming.

"When they came, we all ran to the church to hide. Other families had built underground shelters and so they went down there to stay until the soldiers left.

"They were big men who wore their uniforms proudly. But they had big guns strapped across their backs - and I was always afraid I'd get shot one day."

The 103-year-old Mangere resident was born and raised during some of Samoa's most trying times. War had been declared in 1914 and the country, then under German control, was set for some hard times within the next few years.

She was just a couple of months shy of her 4th birthday when troops from New Zealand arrived on August, 29, 1914, to take over what was then German Samoa.

Britain had called on its friends in the South Pacific to seize the German colony.

More than 1400 officers, mechanics, medical staff and technicians made up the New Zealand Expeditionary Force that set sail from Wellington Harbour on August 15.

The history books say it was an exciting time, with many young Kiwis eager to take part in what would be the first world war.

As the troops neared the island nation, they would have been going through a whole set of emotions and a new and probably overlooked challenge - the heat.

Samoan historian Dr Leasiolagi Malama Meleisea, a lecturer at the National University of Samoa, said even though August was a relatively cooler time in the islands, the New Zealanders would have found the weather challenging.

"Yes, the conditions would have been less than ideal, but the sense of duty must have been sufficient motivation. It seems to me that the context of build-up to World War I, the feelings of nationalism, patriotism, honour - and hate - were successfully used to motivate the armed forces.

"They were determined not only to terminate German rule to Samoa, but to root out any pro-German sympathies among the population."

As it turned out, the New Zealanders' arrival was something of a non-event, with the Germans offering no resistance and effectively giving up without a fight.

"It could have been much worse," Dr Meleisea said.

Foreign rule

The Germans had been in Samoa since 1900 and although there were people who did not like that foreign rule, there were also Samoans who supported them.

The story goes that when news of the Kiwi troops' arrival reached the German Governor, Erich Schultz-Ewerth, he did not offer resistance because they were simply unprepared for battle.


NZ troops arrived on August 29, 1914. Photo / Davis Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

They had a shortage of German forces and the Governor did not want Samoan blood spilt. He was known for his love for the country and its people; becoming fluent in the language and even getting the traditional men's tattoo - the pe'a.

For an outsider to undergo such a ritual is considered rare even today; so for that to happen more than 100 years ago would have been extraordinary, if not scandalous.

The Kiwis quickly took over a local radio tower, built by the Germans, which was considered hugely powerful at the time.

The New Zealanders also removed several German flags on that day and a coat of arms from the local post office that would later find a new home at the clubrooms of the College Rifles rugby club, in Auckland's Remuera.

New Zealand's Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Logan was later photographed outside the courthouse, in Apia, where he read out a proclamation that was soon posted on buildings throughout the island in English, German and Samoan.

Part of that document reads: "The New Zealand Government of His Britannic Majesty King George Fifth now occupy for His Majesty all the German Territories situated in the islands of the Samoan Group.


Mele Ioelu recalls the sirens going off.

"All inhabitants of the occupied territories are commanded to submit to all such directions as may be given by any Officer of the Occupying Force."

The proclamation forbade anyone from helping or even talking to anyone associated with German authorities.

Public meetings were disallowed, all firearms were to be handed in and a curfew was introduced. No one was allowed outside between 10pm and 6am and even using a canoe was forbidden.

The Old Courthouse

The next day, a ceremony was held outside the courthouse. The German flag was taken down and the British flag raised.

That building, now referred to as The Old Courthouse, remains standing today and is one of the Pacific's oldest buildings.

It is an interesting site in that it has been used by all three of Samoa's leaders - the Germans in the early 1900s, the New Zealanders from 1914 and the Samoan Government from 1962, when the country became an independent state.

It is also the place where the life of one of the island's most prominent high chiefs of the time, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, ended when he was shot by New Zealand police officers in 1929.


Samoa's police band uses the old courthouse as its headquarters. Photo / Tarx Morris

He was one of 11 Samoans killed and dozens more wounded in what would later be dubbed Black Saturday.

As Tamasese lay dying, he told followers: "Samoa, filemu pea ma si ou toto nei ta'uvalea, a ia aoga lo'u ola mo lenei mea." These words, inscribed in a plaque honouring the fallen leader, asked all Samoans for peace and not vengeance so that his life was not lost in vain.

For years the courthouse was used as the nation's Supreme Court and is today occupied and used as a base for the National Police Band.

In recent years there have been calls to save the building because of its historical significance. Even Unitec, in Auckland, has been involved.

A police band leader, Superintendent Nafo'itoa Alesana Laki, said everyone knew about the origins of the building, but acknowledged that its historical significance was sometimes forgotten, given the building's almost derelict state.

"The flagpoles outside are the same ones from 100 years ago. The bigger flagpole was the one that the British flag was raised [up in 1914]. For a long time, our daily police march would end here and the Samoan flag would go up and we'd sing the national anthem.

"We haven't done that in a long time now because the top of the flagpole is broken."

We remember

Locals in Samoa are somewhat uninformed about this part of history and many can only point out the more tragic parts of the country's relationship with New Zealand.

Black Saturday is general knowledge in the islands, as well as the influenza epidemic of 1918, when one-fifth of the population (about 8500 people) died.

That happened after a passenger steamship from New Zealand, carrying many people with the deadly disease, arrived and was not quarantined.

Even Mrs Ioelu, who would have been 8, remembers that terrible time.

"People were walking on the road looking drunk. They would be swaying from side to side and suddenly drop to the ground - dead. So many people were dying ... it got to the point they had to gather the dead and bury them in one grave, immediately. There was no time to carry out our proper rituals."

The Museum of Samoa's principal officer, Lumepa Apelu, said an exhibition this month paid tribute to a part of history that is nearly always forgotten.

"I'm hoping this exhibition will entice interest in the community - to want to learn more about this history and about how the New Zealanders came here."

How NZ's influence would change two nations forever

New Zealand's takeover of German Samoa may not have been the bloodiest of its campaigns during the war, but it was arguably the most significant.

Dr Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa, Associate Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, said New Zealand political leaders had longed to occupy Samoa since the 19th century.

"If you're thinking about New Zealand, probably the most important legacy of the first world war - not the most costly, not the most bloody - but the most enduring and the one that transforms New Zealand the most, is the takeover of Samoa."

The Kiwis would go on to rule Samoa for almost 50 years before the nation became independent.

The two countries have had their fair share of ups and downs, but without doubt have a strong relationship.

"If you try to imagine that New Zealand did not have Samoa for 50 years and did not have 200,000 Samoans [living here] right now, we're looking at a materially different New Zealand. And that happened because of the first world war.

"On that one day, when New Zealand arrived in Samoa ... it was a truly significant day and that's something we should appreciate."

Timeline
Aug 4, 1914: World War I declared.
Aug 7: Britain asks NZ to perform a "great and urgent imperial service" and seize German Samoa.
Aug 15: NZ Expeditionary Force sails from Wellington.
Aug 29: New Zealanders arrive in German Samoa. The Germans do not officially surrender, but there is no battle and the Kiwis seize control.
Aug 30, 1914: The German flag is taken down at the courthouse, in Apia, and the British flag raised.

What's On
Today: National commemoration ceremony at cenotaph, Auckland Domain, from 4.15pm.
Auckland War Memorial Museum
WWI Samoa: Voices from the Pacific: Events celebrating the relationship between Samoa and NZ. Tomorrow and Sunday. Entangled Islands: Samoa, NZ and the First World War. Until Feb 2015.
Samoa: Military commemoration at Magiagi Cemetery at sunset today. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi and officials of NZ, Germany, Britain, Australia and France to lay wreaths.

- NZ Herald

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