Most Samoans will know the story about Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, Samoan Head of State who, in 1929, was shot to death in peaceful protest against New Zealand’s rule over Samoa.
Well, all Samoans should know this story.
It began in 1914, when New Zealand took control over Western Samoa. The world was at war at the time (WW1) so New Zealand was pretty much left by the British to govern our islands however way they wanted.
By just about every account, New Zealand wasn’t the greatest of colonial masters. Their general attitude towards Samoans was that we were ‘childlike‘, and they imposed some oppressive regulations about who we could marry, how we ran our businesses and how much power our traditional governing systems (matai) could have.
Then in 1918, a deadly strain of influenza, called the Spanish Flu, broke out in NZ and spread to Samoa the year after, killing over 7500 people.
What happened was that NZ officials failed to quarantine a ship that carried ill passengers into Samoa.
It was typical of NZ’s inconsistent governance of the islands. On the one hand, they set up strict policies to control us, and on the other hand, they were careless with our health and welfare.
Samoa had had enough.
In earlier decades, the Mau a Pule – a resistence against foreign rule – had formed in Savai’i to oppose the German occupation of Samoa.
That effort died down when the Germans exiled senior leaders of the Mau to Micronesian islands.
But now, against NZ rule, it was time for the rebirth of Samoa mo Samoa.
An afakasi businessman and statesman named Taisi Olaf F. Nelson became a founding member of the new Mau.
In 1926, he visited the NZ capital of Wellington to petition the government to allow Samoans more freedom to self-govern.
In 1927, Nelson published a newspaper called the ‘Samoa Guardian’ to support the movement.
In 1928 he was exiled from Samoa, along with two other members of the Mau, but he used those five years away to take his protests all the way to the League of Nations in Geneva.
In Nelson’s absence, the Mau continued to resist NZ.
Led now by the Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, they continued to use civil disobedience as a way to get their message across.
They refused to pay taxes, boycotted imported goods and ignored NZ officials when they visited their villages.
Then, Black Saturday.
On the 28th of December, 1929 Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III led the Mau on a march down the Beach Road of Apia to meet other members of the movement who had just returned from deportation to Auckland.
The peaceful demonstration erupted into violence when the NZ military police opened fire on the marchers. Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III rushed to the front of the crowd and urged his people – who had begun to throw rocks – to be still, ‘filemu‘.
A single bullet from behind brought him down.
Other Samoan men who rushed to help the leader were also killed. When it was over, 8 people were dead (3 died later) and around 50 were injured.
As he lay dying, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III continued to plead for peace:
“My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in peace. If I die, peace must be maintained at any price.”
So that’s the story.
Because the New Zealand administration launched a cover-up campaign after the events of Samoa’s Black Saturday, the story had to be pieced together over the decades from various accounts.
You’ll probably find the most thorough re-telling of this dark passage of Samoan history in a book called, ‘Black Saturday: New Zealand’s tragic blunders in Samoa,’ by NZ-born Pacific journalist Michael Field.
In his research, Michael Field came across an Auckland woman, now in her 80’s, who was there in Apia the day Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III was killed.
Agnes Heeny was 7 years old when she witnessed the shooting, and the incredible experience is recounted in an article written to commemorate the 2007 aniversary of the tragic events.
Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III is a significant figure in history because of his martyrdom in Samoa’s struggle for freedom, but it is his legacy of peace that has made him a Samoan icon.