Lest we Remember: Samoa mo Samoa / Ōmura

New Year’s Day this year marked fifty years of Samoan independence. It’s an important anniversary in any setting, but marking this victory feels especially important at this site. Overland, with its ‘temper democratic’ and ‘bias Australian’, draws on, and aims to contribute to, the anti-imperialist traditions of this part of the world, and contemporary Australia is unthinkable without the vibrant Samoan contributions to the multiculture of Sydney, Brisbane and the GC.

Anniversaries matter as sites of memory, too, and test current political battles. Lest we remember: Jeff wrote here recently on Anzac Day as an opportunity for anti-politics, for organised forgetting. That’s at least a chance for contestation, though, and a spectacle around which to think through – and against – what Tom O’Lincoln calls the ‘national myth’ of Australia and the Pacific war. Some celebrations, May Day most obviously, decline and revive with the fortunes of the wider labour and socialist movement.

More thorough forms of forgetting have been carried out around the legacy of the Samoan struggle, though, and Jeff’s post prompted me to think about Anzac forces of occupation in the context of this wider process of the erasure of historical memory. If ‘our’ freedoms were forged at Gallipoli and on the Kokoda Trail, what happened to those freedoms as part of genuine, ongoing occupations? (Given both Australia and New Zealand’s role in the devastation of Afghanistan, the question is not without its own urgency and polemical relevance).

I live in New Zealand, the country most responsible for Samoa’s exploitation and colonial oppression; in the Palagi world at least, the anniversary of independence has gone almost wholly unremarked. There’s a smugness to this, a too-hasty desire to assimilate Samoan experience into an account of New Zealand ‘multiculturalism’, Auckland as a world Pasifika city and so on. But there’s also an obvious – and damaging – political project organising this forgetting: if talk of the ‘international community’ enjoys the support of everyone from the Liberals to the Greens, reminders of local imperialist ventures, however small the scale, fit no mainstream narrative.

Some of the stray details of this story offer encouragement to our work now as well. The archive around Samoa and the complications of the occupation of Japan provide plenty of material revealing what should be considered terrible historical wrongs. There are fragments for a future anti-imperialist tradition, too. That said, even in an era when Australia and New Zealand were far more isolated than they are now, there were networks of writers, activists and campaigners aware of their internationalist commitments, and the complexity of Pacific politics, in ways that would put many of us to shame. The presence of Hone Tuwhare, the great communist poet, in the occupation of Japan shows also the intellectual and political conflicts occupation can generate. It’s the kind of memory most commemorations of the Anzac spirit work now to repress and forget.


A Footnote to History

New Zealand troops were sent to occupy Samoa from the start of the First World War, replacing German colonists who offered no military resistance. For the Samoans, the situation was grim: New Zealand occupation was, inevitably, the standard mixture of authoritarianism, racism and arrogant incompetence. Around a fifth of Samoa’s population died during the great influenza pandemic following the war; in November 1918 NZ officials had allowed a ‘flu-carrying ship’ to dock in Apia, a slackness all the more reprehensible when we remember that, by this stage, influenza was a notifiable disease in New Zealand. Colonial administrators, decked out in military uniforms and practicising Anglo-swagger, pondered the difficulties of preparing Samoa for a state in which it could earn the right to independence, all the while disparaging the actual accomplishments of this highly literate, organised society. Australasian paranoia about race was imported, too, as Chinese in Samoa faced segregation and legislated prejudice.

Samoan resistance organised through the Mau, a mass movement building popular resistance to New Zealand rule. O le Mau a Samoa – the ‘firm opinion of Samoa’ – became, from the late 1920s, a growing force on the island and was close to being an alternative power. Through this period the Mau organised boycotts, mass demonstrations, propaganda campaigns, newspapers. The government responded by deporting ‘half-caste’ campaigners to New Zealand, and bans, curfews and self-deluding assurances that the natives would be content once separated from agitators.

28 December 1929 was Black Saturday. Troops fired into a crowd marching peacefully to welcome returned exiles; at least eight people died. In the years following Mau activists went into hiding, their organisation banned and their leaders persecuted. Commodore Blake put the case for New Zealand humanitarian intervention:

At the present moment he [the Samoan] is in the position of a sulky and insubordinate child who has deliberately disobeyed his father, as the administrator is generally termed, and no peaceful persuasion will induce him to submit. There is no alternative, therefore, but to treat him roughly … force is the only thing which will appeal to the Samoan.

The poet Tusiata Avia records a rather more convincing counter-history, in her poem ‘Avia’, in memory of her grandfather, Le Mamea Simanu’a Avia Esera, a Mau activist and fighter:

You didn’t die on the road to Apia
when the soldiers opened fire
you hit the ground with your trumpet
you hid in the bushes of Lefaga
and your wife told them you were gone.

There were other times you didn’t die
that no one has told me about.

Samoan courage and intransigence brought the struggle on into the era of decolonisation. Activists in New Zealand, particularly around the young Communist Party, developed their revulsion for what we would now call the Anzac spirit through their exposure to NZ brutality in Samoa. The poet RAK Mason spent parts of 1931 in Samoa and found the experience profoundly disillusioning. He returned a dedicated anti-nationalist, and his literary response to the anti-memory around war deserves to be much more widely known in Australia. From NZ meddling and murder in Samoa to Australasian involvement in the US’s ‘forgotten war’ dismembering the Korean peninsula, Mason’s was a long-term, settled disgust:

‘Sonnet to MacArthur’s Eyes’

General MacArthur looked down on the bodies of four young Korean soldiers. ‘That’s a good sight for my old eyes,’ he said (Newspaper report)

I have known old eyes that had seen many more
	aspects of warfare than this man has seen –
	eyes that looked on Gallipoli or the keen
	edge of battle with the Boer or in even older war
	had known Balaclava and the Mutiny’s evil score:
	such eyes I’ve known them old have always been 
	eager to see spring flowers and the youth who mean
	mankind’s spring after winter’s war. Never before

Have I known of anyone whose old eyes rejoice
	to see young men lying dead in their own land,
	never have I known one who of his own choice
	follows up the machines of death to take his stand
	over the slain and in a quavering voice
	declaim his joy at youth dead beneath his hand.


No ordinary sun

One of those pairs of eyes Mason knew belonged to his friend: comrade, boilermaker, Communist and poet, Hone Tuwhare. Tuwhare, one of the region’s most important poets, was part of J-Force, New Zealand’s occupying force in post-war Japan. The ironies of his situation show just some of the political work historical memory needs to do. It was Japan, and the experience of the atomic bomb, which inspired from Tuwhare his great anti-war poem ‘No Ordinary Sun,’ a canonical piece of oppositional, engaged literature. It is Japan’s ‘success’ as an (ostensibly) open and democratic society that appears as evidence in many a case of boosterish talk for current occupations and it is, with tragic irony, in Japan that Tuwhare took part in one of the most carefully forgotten, and ongoing, moments of Anzac colonial destruction.

J-Force, located in Senzaki, was involved in administering the mass deportation of Koreans from Japan. Tuwhare remembered it like this:

We didn’t really hurt anybody, but we tried to repatriate the Koreans, whom the Japanese had used as cheap labour for their war industries and so on … But some of them didn’t want to go back! They had higher living standards in Japan and had got quite used to living there and maybe had set up liaisons with the Japanese people. So that was another problem. By law, that was our job, to round ‘em up and put them back to their own country. And some didn’t mind going back – they wanted to see their homeland, of course, which was natural. But there were some – individuals – and I’m talking about a minority. So these were the ones that caused a bit of trouble.

What Tuwhare is describing is his involvement in one of the great unknown forced transfers of people to have marked Pacific history. US occupying forces – and the Japanese ruling class they were so anxiously, hurriedly rehabilitating – were obsessed with the menace of Korean social activists, figuring them, in US official Nick Collaer’s words, as part of a ‘vast international conspiracy … a substantial percentage of the [Koreans in Japan] … are active communist agitators or rank-and-file members of subversive organisations.’ In order to break Korean activism, then, the occupying forces embarked on a project of mass repatriation. The consequences are with us to this day: many Koreans families now in the DPRK were forced there from a Japan in which they had relatives and wished to stay. Many political and democratic groups were broken in the name of ‘security’. Many loved ones were separated – in a process the Korean War would soon make permanent – by arbitrary and bureaucratic decisions about who was to be kept and who deported.

It was NZ forces who played an important role in overseeing all of this barbarity. One soldier recorded a description in his diary:

Men women & children [are] herded into one heap & there are over 300 in one shed & they are locked in there … The stink in those places nearly knocks you out & it is cruel to see the way they have to sleep. When a ship comes in they are put on to it like sardines in a tin & then they have to stay there until the doctors say it is free from diseases. The Idea of keeping them so long is to prevent diseases from spreading. The place is one of the worst in Japan for diseases but we are well looked after we are DDT’ed every time we leave the place & while on guard we wash our hands in lysol every half an hour …

A final imagery for Anzac memory here: what this soldier is describing is a detention centre, something Australian readers will be very familiar with by now and which may yet spread. Yesterday’s news announced that the New Zealand government planned to borrow, almost to the letter, Australian anti-refugee laws. The main detention centre established in Japan to contain and deport Koreans was at Ōmura, on the road to Nagasaki. It’s still there, and still functions as a concentration zone for refugees. Tessa Morris-Suzuki calls it an ‘east Asian’ version of the concentration camps; it may as well now be described as an ancestor of Woomera and the other terrible jails built across Australia. I know Ōmura, with family not far from its base, and think about these forgotten connections each time I’ve driven past. These are some of the unfreedoms for which the nameless ‘they’ may well have died.

Lest we remember.

Comrades! Brethern! Citizens of Korea!
Thick iron windows and strong walls;
Let’s fight, march on, and win,
Honourable brethern subjected to humiliation!
Don’t forget, don’t forget
The Ōmura detention camp.
Comrades! Brethern! Citizens in the Ōmura Camp!
Let’s march on to Pyongyang today
To build our glorious motherland,
Honourable brethern!
Let’s remember, let’s remember
The Ōmura Detention camp


Tuwhare’s comment on J-Force is from Janet Hunt, Hone Tuwhare: A Biography (Godwit, 1998). The other details of Korean deportation are from Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s Borderline Japan: Foreigners and Frontier Controls in the Postwar Era (Cambridge, 2010), a brilliant and quite moving history. Tusiata Avia’s poem comes from her 2004 collection Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (Victoria University Press), and RAK Mason’s sonnet is from his Collected Poems (Pegasus, 1962). Michael Field’s Mau: Samoa’s Struggle Against New Zealand Oppression (1984) is the classic account, and it is from this text that I’ve drawn my details here.

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

More by Dougal McNeill ›

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