The 60-year anniversary of Samoan Independence is a huge event for Samoa and Samoan communities globally. The day was marked on June 1 and celebrations have continued.
And there is certainly much to celebrate and much to remember.
The magnitude of the sustained fight for the right to self-govern is something that cannot be forgotten. And it is even more significant now, under the leadership of the Honourable Prime Minister of Samoa Lau Afioga le Tama’ita’i Pālemia Fiamē Naomi Matā’afa, currently visiting Aotearoa to hold bilateral meetings with the New Zealand Government.
Fiamē Naomi Matā’afa represents the generational fight for independence for Samoa through the service of her grandfather to the Mau and her father who continued this fight to become the first prime minister of Samoa in 1962. But she also represents a new era for Samoan leadership, and significantly, Samoan women.
For me as a New Zealand-born Samoan/Pālagi historian, this year was more significant than ever because while I have always understood the importance of independence, I have only recently understood the importance of it as a Samoan.
I am researching the independence and ‘decolonisation’ of New Zealand’s colonial territories in the Pacific, first of which was Samoa in 1962. This has meant spending time in our national archives reading and thinking about Samoa’s path to independence, which was not easy. It spanned more than 10 years of heavy negotiations between the New Zealand administration in Samoa, the United Nations, and the Samoan leadership.
It was a long, complicated process, made even more difficult with New Zealand’s cultivated global image as a ‘leader’ in race relations.
But it is important to remember that the fundamental race-based ideologies of colonisation had not disappeared with the UN decree 1514, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, in 1960. Paternalistic convictions of the ‘civilising impact’ of the Western world on the uncivilised Indigenous people still had a firm grip in this period, which makes the ability of the Samoan leadership to stand strong in their vision for Samoa even more important to recognise.
As a Pacific person, when I am searching the archives, I look for the voices of Pacific peoples; it is our stories I want to highlight more than the historical details. And through this research I have been awed by the steadfastness and determination of the Samoa leaders to achieve freedom for the Samoan people but also remain true to Fa’asamoa and the Samoan way of doing things. Not all these things I agree with as a woman (cue the decision not to grant universal suffrage) but I can, in the wake of a long history of tense colonial occupation, truly appreciate the strength it took to remain united and put Samoan people and culture first.
On January 1, 1962, the Samoana published a message from the Ao o le Malo (Heads of State), His Highness Tupua Tamasese Mea’ole and His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II, that focused on the importance of unity in this new-found freedom, not just of those who led but of all Samoans. Part of this is a testament to those who had come before and protested, pushed, argued, and bled for this moment:
“O le itula nei ua ma mafaufau i tama ma le ‘au puputoa o Samoa sa sa’ilia leMalo, o lo o tofafa ma i malae. Talofa ua latou le taga’i silasila i lo tatou taeao. Ae ui lea e ao ona tatou avatu le fa’amalo ina ua latou faia lo latou tiute aua le Malo ma le atunuu. Talosia o le a avea la latou taulaga ma mea e gaua’i ai lo tatou loto i le fa’atinoga o le Malo Tuto’atasi.”
“At this time, we pause to think of the many patriots who have given so much for Independence, and yet are not with us. We honour their memory; we honour them for doing their duty so nobly and well by Samoa. May their sacrifice inspire us to give ourselves with greater devotion in serving our country.”
The fight for freedom from colonial oppression took more than 60 years, beginning under the German administration with the first Mau a Pule in Savai’i in the early 1900s. New Zealand seized control of Samoa as their first act in WWI in 1914, and so began control of Samoa as a military occupation, a mandate from the League of Nations (1920), and after WWII, a UN Trust Territory.
But these designations do not hide that Samoa was one of New Zealand’s colonies in the Pacific for almost 50 years, and this often was not a peaceful relationship. The history of this relationship traverses the heavy casualties of the Influenza epidemic in 1918, the harsh oppression of successive New Zealand administrators, the Mau, WWII, and the continued advocacy post WWII for Samoan self-government: independence celebrated in 1962 was hard fought by multiple generations of Samoan people.
This year, on Independence Day and in the weeks that have followed, I have begun to understand more fully the significance of independence for Samoa as a Samoan. Understanding the determination and passion of multiple generations who fought for the right to govern themselves has been a significant shift for me as a Samoan historian to push beyond the historical processes of independence and instead feel the magnitude of the sacrifice and determination of the people of Samoa on their path to independence.