The rise of a New Zealand Empire in the Pacific

Within less than a month of joining the war against Germany in 1914, New Zealand had seized its first colonial conquest from Germany. On August 29 1914 troops from the New Zealand warships Moeraki and Monowai stepped ashore at Apia in western Samoa, and formally took possession of the German colony in the name of the British Empire. The colony was not defended by Germany; this takeover was accomplished without a shot being fired.

German, British, and American warships in Apia harbour, Samoa 1899

German, British, and American warships in Apia harbour, Samoa 1899

The larger, western islands of Samoa had been German colony since 1899, when Samoa was divided by agreement between the imperialist powers of Britain, Germany and the United States. Under this agreement, the United States took the smaller, eastern Tutuila Islands in the Samoa group, while the larger islands of Upolu and Savai’i to the west were awarded to Germany, in exchange for Germany relinquishing its claims to Solomon Islands and some West African territories. The people of Samoa were compelled to accept this arrangement as the price for ending the internal wars between clans which these same rival powers had stoked.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa 1890s

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa 1890s

The early phase of this process was described by the writer (and active participant in the events) Robert Louis Stevenson, in an 1892 book called A footnote to history: Eight years of trouble in Samoa.

Raising he Australian flag in Angorum, New Guinea, December 1914

Raising he Australian flag in Angorum, New Guinea, December 1914

Samoa was one of a series of former German colonies annexed by the allies in 1914.  In November of that year, Australia grabbed the phosphate-rich Pacific island of Nauru and in December, the largest prize of all: the north-eastern part of the vast, resource-rich island of New Guinea (leaving the western half in the possession of Holland, an ally. The south-eastern part was already an Australian possession). Japan, an ally of Britain in the Great War, eyed the German colonies on the island of Saipan in the northern Mariana Islands and at Jiaozhou Bay on the coast of mainland China. (The old name for the capital of this German colony, Tsingtao, lives on as a brand of beer – the brewery was established by a German and British consortium during the period of German occupation).

Similar grabs took place in Africa: German Togoland (today’s Togo) was invaded by British troops from neighbouring Gold Coast (Ghana) a few days before the invasion of Samoa. British and French troops invaded German Cameroun. South African troops invaded the German colony of South West Africa (Namibia).

German naval ships were in the vicinity of Samoa after the Moeraki and Monowai had returned to New Zealand, and could easily have re-taken the island, but they left it in New Zealand hands, and returned to Germany. Germany made relatively little effort to defend any of its Pacific territories militarily, (although it fought hard to defend its Chinese colony.) While Germany’s need to expand its colonial possessions at the expense of the established empires was a major driving force of the war, the German government understood that the fate of the colonies would be decided mainly by the outcome of the war in Europe.

While there was relatively little violence associated with these annexations in 1914, they set the stage for major confrontations in the future, including some intense battles during the Second World War: 30,000 soldiers were to lose their lives in the battle for Saipan in 1944.

Early leaders of the Mau being deported to Saipan on German warship July 1914

Early leaders of the Mau being deported to Saipan on German warship

The seizure of Samoa from Germany in 1914 took place against the will of the Samoan people. Since 1908 the Mau movement for independence of Samoa had won increasing support, despite punitive deportations of the leaders of this movement to Saipan by the German administration. The new overlords from New Zealand would soon find themselves in direct confrontation with the Mau movement.

Of all the grabs for Germany’s Asia-Pacific possessions early in the Great War, the most problematic for the allies were those involving China and the Chinese people. For China was already in revolutionary turmoil. The Qing dynasty had been overthrown by a popular revolt in 1911, the Chinese Republican Sun Yat-sen was in power, and anti-colonial sentiment was running high.

In the nineteenth century, as a consequence of military defeats by Britain and France, China had been forced to cede sovereignty of pieces of its major coastal cities to Britain, France, Germany, and later Japan, Russia, the United States and other powers. (Portugal had had the colony of Macau since the 16th century.)

German postcard from Tsingtao

German postcard from Tsingtao

These territories were the springboards for capitalist penetration of the Chinese hinterland by the competing imperial powers. They were directly administered by colonial troops and police of these powers, a colossal affront to Chinese national dignity. (Most of these territories were re-absorbed into China in the course of the second Chinese revolution – the last two being Hong Kong, which remained a British possession until 1997; and Macau which remained a Portuguese colony until 1999.)

Japanese troops landing for Battle of Tsingtao, 1914

Japanese troops landing for Battle of Tsingtao, 1914

When war was declared in August 1914, the Republic of China saw an opportunity to regain one of these concessions, and it immediately cancelled the 99-year lease on the German enclave at Tsingtao. Japan moved quickly to prevent China from regaining possession of the territory. On 23 August, Japan declared war on Germany and immediately besieged Tsingtao. Britain joined the attack. By November, the attackers had overwhelmed the German defenders, and the allies formally took possession of the colony on 16 November.

Chines protest against Versailles treaty, May 4th, 1919

Chinese protest against Versailles treaty granting Tsingtao to Japan, May 4th, 1919

China itself declared war on Germany in 1917, and hoped to regain possession of Tsingtao with Germany’s defeat, but the Treaty of Versailles awarded possession of all of Germany’s Asia-Pacific colonies north of the equator to Japan, including Tsingtao. This decision in turn sparked the May 4th Movement, a renewed upsurge of anti-colonial agitation in China.

It was not only the Chinese in China who were aroused by the 1911 revolution, but the Chinese diaspora throughout Asia and the Pacific. Chinese indentured labourers in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya had long supported the democratic movement and provided refuge and funds for Sun Yat-sen.

Like Britain and the competing imperialist powers, the German colonial rulers saw Samoa, Tsingtao, and their other Asia-Pacific possessions both as strategic re-fuelling and servicing bases for the German navy, and also as sources of raw materials for German industry. They set up plantations producing rubber, edible oils, especially coconut and palm oil, cocoa, and sugar in Samoa, the Solomons, and New Guinea.

Since the Samoan people, even after the German annexation, had access to land to produce the food and shelter they needed, they felt no compulsion to work for wages on the plantations. They could earn more by producing their own copra and selling it to the German Trading and Plantation Company. The German colonists solved their labour problems by bringing indentured labourers from their other Pacific colonies: some 5700 workers were brought from the Solomons and New Guinea, on three-year indentures on wages of 5 pounds a year. (Similar indenture arrangements were used to bring workers from Hawai’i to work in agriculture on the Pacific coast of North America, from Solomon Island and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to the sugar plantations in Queensland, and Indian workers to work the sugar plantations of the British colony in Fiji.)

Chinese workers bagging cocoa, German Samoa

Chinese workers bagging cocoa, German Samoa

When that proved insufficient to meet the need for labour, indentured workers were recruited from China. Between 1903 and 1913 the German planters brought some 3,800 labourers to Samoa from the Kwangtung (Guangdong) province, on three-year indentures. They were forbidden under the terms of their indenture from trading or owning land. They were paid a low wage of ten marks per month for a ten-hour day, with two Sundays off per month, and were not permitted to leave the plantation without permission. It was not long before the Governor had cause to complain to Berlin about “shockingly high death rate among [a planter’s] Chinese, complaints about wage deductions and brutal treatment by him…”

The Chinese indentured labourers saw in the 1914 overthrow of the German colonial power an opening to fight for their rights. “The Chinese have killed one or two German residents, so strong measures have to be adopted to keep them in check”, reported the Grey River Argus. The newspaper “NZ Truth”, reporting on the activities of the New Zealand occupation troops in its issue of 26 September, added as a footnote,  “The only active service that fell to the lot of the invaders was the quelling of a Chinese rising against the Germans about 8 miles outside Apia. A detachment from 100 to 150 strong was ordered out with a squad of native police, to act as guides… Arrived at the scene of operations they found SIXTEEN CHINAMEN IN REVOLT. The rebellion was quickly quelled, the rebels taken prisoners and marched back to camp.”

A few days later, the Grey River Argus reported, “The Chinese at Samoa appeared to be under the impression that the change of Government wiped out the offences of any of their fellow countrymen who were in gaol, and finding that such was not the case, they tried to cause trouble. The facts as related by a member of the expeditionary force to his relatives in Auckland are that there are over 3,000 Chinese in Samoa, and the writer expresses the opinion that they may cause trouble to the authorities. He adds: — “It would not occasion any surprise if they were to break out into a revolt. On the third day after our arrival, about 100 Chinese made representation to the Governor (Colonel Logan) asking that now the Island had changed hands, the Chinese prisoners should be released from gaol, and on receiving a refusal they made a rush to open the door by force, but were repulsed with a few cracked heads.”

The annexation of Samoa and the other German Pacific colonies in 1914 were some of the defining actions of the emerging imperialist powers of Australia and New Zealand in the South Pacific, alongside the sending of Australasian troops to fight alongside of the British army in suppressing the Boer republic on South Africa, and the annexation by New Zealand of the Cook Islands and Niue in 1901. The Liberal government of New Zealand had long proclaimed its empire-building plans for acquiring Pacific island territories – including even Hawai’i, before the United States removed that group from their sights by taking possession of it in 1893.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the grabbing of Samoa was the muted response of the class-struggle wing of the labour movement. The Red Federation of Labour had for years conducted a campaign against capitalist militarism, centred on opposition to compulsory military training. Leaders of the Red Feds would soon be jailed for their opposition to conscription and to the war. So it seems somewhat strange that the Maoriland Worker, weekly newspaper of the class-struggle current in the labour movement, had little to say about the annexation of Samoa.

The first mention of Samoa is in the Maoriland Worker Issue of 9 September, a flippant note under the heading ‘Heard and Said:’ “That the more one hears, of the unparalleled bravery of New Zealanders rushing the cocoa-nut trees at Samoa, the more impressed one becomes. That it is no small undertaking to risk the possibilities of a nut falling upon a conscript’s head.”

In the September 23 issue we read: “The Czar is willing to sacrifice his last moujik in the capture of Berlin; the Kaiser was willing to sacrifice his last conscript in the capture of Paris; and [NZ Prime Minister] Bill Massey and [Attorney-General Alexander] Herdman were willing to sacrifice the last school-kid in capturing Samoa or any other old place. The valiant manner in which the Czar and the Kaiser and Bill Massey and Herdman stay at home and don’t sacrifice themselves is enough to send whirlwinds of admiration roaring down the world’s roadways.”  Thereafter, there is no further mention of Samoa until November, a report on conditions faced by the New Zealand troops.

In part, this silence was an indication of how thinly stretched was the Red Feds’ leadership by the rush of events in 1914, in part also, almost certainly, the pressure of the war hysteria. At the outbreak of the war, Harry Holland, editor of the Maoriland Worker, was still in prison, serving a twelve-month sentence for sedition on account of a speech he gave during the 1913 waterfront strike. He was released on 15 August under a ‘war amnesty’ and spent the next two weeks recovering, before returning to work as editor in September. On September 12, there was an explosion that killed 43 miners at the Ralph coal mine in Huntly, which demanded the full attention of the labour movement.

However, in reading the literature of the period it seems clear that the Red Fed leaders had a fairly narrow conception of the question of capitalist militarism. Their emphasis is on militarism as a weapon against the working class at home, warning against the use of troops as strikebreakers, and war as a violation of international working class solidarity. The idea of imperialist war as a predatory action against sovereign peoples was little discussed. It appears that even the left wing of the labour movement, those who had long opposed conscription to capitalist armies, acquiesced in the Samoan colonial adventure.

It was not long before Harry Holland attempted to address this weakness and forge solidarity with the exploited labourers of the Pacific. In 1918 Holland spoke out against the plan to formally annex Samoa to New Zealand, proposing a peace policy of no annexations. In April 1918 he published a pamphlet entitled Samoa, a story that teems with tragedy, and followed it a year later with a study of indentured labour in Fiji and Samoa, Indentured labour: Is it slavery?

Elected to parliament in 1918, he used that forum to speak out against the continuation of indentured labour, and took part in a parliamentary delegation to Fiji and Samoa early in 1920, brushing aside obstacles that were put up to prevent him speaking to striking workers in Fiji.

By that time, the New Zealand administration in Samoa was already in a deep political crisis. The worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918, brought to Samoa due to administrative bungling and indifference by the New Zealand authorities, had claimed the lives of one-fifth of the population. The pro-independence agitation of the Mau was gaining mass support.

2 responses to “The rise of a New Zealand Empire in the Pacific

  1. Pingback: Acting in the true Anzac spirit | A communist at large·

  2. Pingback: The Christchurch atrocity and the need for a class political response | A communist at large·

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