To celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, the Herald and online magazine E-Tangata are telling the video stories of six inspirational Māori and Pasifika women, made with the support of NZ On Air. Today: Pepe Robertson, who carries a proud legacy from the women's Mau movement in Sāmoa.

Given our tendency to ignore history that shows us as less than heroic, it's probably not surprising that so few Kiwis know about New Zealand's administration of Sāmoa, from 1914 to 1961.

It was not a history that was well known to Pepe Robertson either, even though she had grown up in the village of Vaimoso, which had once been the centre of the Mau — the independence movement that had grown in opposition to New Zealand rule.

It wasn't until she came across Michael Field's book "Mau: Samoa's Struggle for Freedom", that she found out how tragically close to home that history was.

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The book recounted the events of Black Saturday (December 28, 1929), when a peaceful march on Apia's waterfront had ended in bloodshed after New Zealand police fired into the crowd.

The march had been organised to welcome home two members of the Mau who'd been exiled to New Zealand — because New Zealand administrators could do that back then — but it quickly deteriorated after police tried to arrest a Mau official.

Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III (in white) and the Mau committee at Vaimosa, Samoa. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III (in white) and the Mau committee at Vaimosa, Samoa. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

At least eight Sāmoans and one New Zealand policeman were killed that day.

One of the dead was Pepe's grandfather, Migao, who was shot as he tried to shield Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, a paramount chief and Mau leader, who also died.

Pepe hadn't known any of this until she read Field's book.

"I think that was the first time all of us kids, the grandchildren, knew what actually happened in our family during that time," she says.

By then, she was living in Wellington, raising three young children on her own and putting herself through teachers' college because her teaching qualification from Sāmoa wasn't recognised in New Zealand.

The book spurred her on to do her own research, especially on the role of the women who took over when the Mau men were forced into hiding.

She trained as an oral historian and, in the early 1990s, went back to Sāmoa to record the stories of her mother and her aunties. All of them have since passed away, but their stories are now safely held by the National Library in Wellington.

Pepe Robertson originally knew nothing about the history of the Mau independence movement in Samoa. Photo / E-Tangata
Pepe Robertson originally knew nothing about the history of the Mau independence movement in Samoa. Photo / E-Tangata

This shameful chapter of the New Zealand-Sāmoa story began in August 1914, just a few weeks after the start of World War I, when a New Zealand expeditionary force of about 1400 (escorted by Australian, British and French ships) landed in Apia and annexed what was then German Sāmoa on behalf of the British.

The Germans didn't put up a fight, and so the Union Jack was hoisted and New Zealand took over without a single shot being fired.

A colonial administration was installed, but it was authoritarian, paternalistic, and ill-equipped for the job.

The administration's ineptness proved disastrous for Sāmoans.

In November 1918, its failure to quarantine a ship carrying passengers infected with influenza — and, later, its refusal of an offer of help from neighbouring American Sāmoa, which escaped the pandemic unscathed — resulted in the deaths of more than a fifth of the population (estimated at around 8500 people).

Other sources of resentment included the 1922 Sāmoan Offenders Ordinance, which gave the administration the power to banish chiefs and remove their titles.

By the 1920s, nearly all of Sāmoa had joined the Mau's campaign of passive resistance.

The steamship Talune, which brought influenza to Samoa in 1918. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
The steamship Talune, which brought influenza to Samoa in 1918. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

After Black Saturday, the New Zealanders stepped up their campaign to bring the Mau to heel.

When the Mau leadership refused to give up their headquarters and surrender wanted men, the administration declared the movement seditious and banned the wearing of the Mau uniform.

Around 1500 Mau men took to the bush, pursued by an armed force of 150 marines and seamen and 50 military police.

To ensure the men weren't being hidden by villagers, marines would raid homes, often at night, with fixed bayonets.

As Pepe's daughter Christine Ammunson wrote in E-Tangata: "Our village was occupied by armed officers who used to raid our houses at night, terrorising our women and our children.

"Officials also banned food going in or out of our village in a bid to try to hunt down any men who they suspected to be hiding there. So my nana's mum and aunties would pretend they had to do their washing all day in the river by our ancestral home, but, of course, they weren't there doing their washing.

"The rest of Sāmoa knew the New Zealanders had imposed a food blockade on our village so they secretly sent food and supplies via fautasi canoes. My aunties would hide the food in the bundles of washing.

Prime Minister Helen Clark and Kiwi Tamasese walk past Samoan men dressed as Mau protesters after laying a wreath on the grave of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi lll in Apia in 2002. Photo / Herald file
Prime Minister Helen Clark and Kiwi Tamasese walk past Samoan men dressed as Mau protesters after laying a wreath on the grave of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi lll in Apia in 2002. Photo / Herald file

"At the end of the day, the New Zealand policemen would inspect their washing baskets, poking into the clothes with their bayonets, but the women hid the food so well that they successfully smuggled the food into our village.

"I remember laughing to myself when I read a police officer's account of that time: he thought the women from our village were some of the cleanest natives he'd ever encountered, as they were always at the river washing.

"The women of the Mau would protest publicly and peacefully in full view of their armed guards, even though these gatherings were banned. They would sing and dance. They would march to other villages and through Apia town."

In 1936, the Labour Government recognised the Mau as a legitimate political organisation and repealed the Sāmoan Offenders Ordinance. But it wasn't until January 1, 1962, that Sāmoa finally regained its independence.

* Pepe Robertson is one of six women featured in Conversations, a six-part video web series created by E-Tangata, an online magazine specialising in Māori and Pasifika stories and perspectives. You can see all the videos and stories at nzherald.co.nz/suffrage