Indentured labourers at the forefront of early anti-colonial struggles 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 29 August 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 armored cruiser SMS Gneisenau, which called at Apia two weeks after New Zealand grabbed the colony. Photo: Collier’s Photographic History of the European War (New York, 1916)

Ships of the German East Asia Squadron were in the vicinity of Samoa after the Moeraki and Monowai had returned to New Zealand. Two warships under the command of Admiral Maximilian von Spee, the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, called in to Apia harbour two weeks later, seeking to attack the battlecruiser Australia, flagship of the fledgling Australian Navy, which von Spee thought might be in Apia. They could easily have re-taken the island, but they left it in New Zealand hands, and returned to Germany. 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.

The larger, western islands of Samoa had been a 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 the 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.

Like Britain and the other imperialist powers, the German colonial rulers saw Samoa, New Guinea, 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 Solomon Islands, and New Guinea.

Since the Samoan people, even after the German annexation, had access to land to produce the means of life, 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. (Copra is the dried flesh of the coconut kernel, from which coconut oil is extracted.) The German colonists solved their labour problems by bringing indentured labourers from their other Pacific colonies: some 5700 workers were brought from the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, on three-year indentures on wages of £5 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 the Solomon Islands and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to the sugar plantations in Queensland, and Indian workers to work the sugar plantations of the British colony in Fiji.)

When labour from other islands proved insufficient to meet the need for labour in Samoa, indentured workers were recruited from China. Between 1903 and 1913 the German planters brought some 3,800 labourers 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…”

Samoa was not the only one of Germany’s Pacific colonies annexed by the allies in 1914.  In November of that year, Australia grabbed the phosphate-rich Pacific island of Nauru and in December it seized 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 Tsingtao (Qingdao) at Jiaozhou Bay on the coast of mainland China. Germany made relatively little effort to defend any of its Pacific Island territories militarily, although it fought hard to defend its Chinese colony of Tsingtao against a combined Japanese-British invasion in late 1914, at a cost of one thousand dead.

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. It was not only the people 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. Similar anti-colonial movements sweeping India at the same time agitated the indentured labourers drawn from that country.

Coconut industry labourers, including Chinese workers cutting out copra, Samoa. Ref: PAColl-7081-49. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The Chinese indentured labourers in Samoa 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 on 2 October. The 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.’”

Troops of the New Zealand Railway Engineers unit in Samoa 1914 pose alongside captured German petrol locomotive that served the plantations. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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 in South Africa, the annexation by New Zealand of the Cook Islands and Niue in 1901, and of south-eastern New Guinea by Australia in 1906. Since the 1890s the Liberal government of New Zealand had 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. The Great War registered the advance of New Zealand’s transformation from a settler-colony into a minor imperialist power in its own right.


Harry Holland was in jail when Samoa was seized. In the jingoist enthusiasm that marked the early months of the war, neither the Maoriland Worker, nor any other voice in the labour movement, even mentioned the Samoan adventure.

Holland had first studied the question of indentured labour in connection with the strikes by workers on the Queensland sugar plantations in 1911. He concluded that the appalling conditions faced by the white Australian plantation workers in that strike were a product of the earlier use of indentured Kanak workers on the plantations in conditions of semi-slavery – and of the labour movement’s failure to make common cause with those workers.

At the end of the war he turned his attention to the question again. The fight against indentured labour was closely bound up with the anti-colonial struggles which had awakened during and after the Great War among the peoples of the Indian subcontinent, China, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Fiji, Samoa, and other parts of Asia and the Pacific. The labourers themselves, both those still working under indentures and those whose period of indenture had ended and who had settled, willingly or otherwise, in foreign lands, were in the forefront of these early anti-colonial struggles. It was a rebellion of the colonial slaves in a very literal sense.

The question of indentured labour was raised in the New Zealand Parliament in 1919. A League of Nations mandate to govern the former German colony of Samoa had been granted to New Zealand under the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty, signed at the conclusion of the Great War. Prime Minister Massey remarked that he was “unable to see much difference between the trust under which we hold Samoa and annexation.” One of the conditions of the mandate was that slavery would be prohibited. However, it was made clear in the parliamentary debate that New Zealand would continue the system of indentured labour from China set up by the German administration.

Indentured labour is slavery,” objected Harry Holland and the Labour members. “Immediately the news goes out that the Government contemplates indentured labour at Samoa you are going to have the whole of the working class of this country in opposition to the idea. We have the record of Fiji before us. We have the tragedy of South Africa after the Boer War still fresh in our minds; and no one who has read the story of the Chinese compounds there – a form of virtual slavery – would ever suggest for a moment that that evil should be reintroduced into Samoa. Under German rule we had indentured labour in Samoa. Groups of Chinese and Solomon Islanders were taken there to work on both German and British plantations; and if you read Samoan history you will find that these indentured Chinamen and Solomon Islanders were treated worse than slaves on these estates. They were engaged for four or five years, as the case might be, at a purely hypothetical wage. They used to escape occasionally and take to the bush. Some of them lived in the bush in an almost bestial condition, and sometimes they were hunted down and shot. The Labour party in this House will fight the proposal for indentured labour to the last ditch; and the labour movement outside the House will resent it to the last man and the last woman,” Holland said.

Indentured labour under a foreign power might be slavery, Massey answered, but under British rule it could not be.

Holland’s refuted Massey’s claim in detail in an election speech in Christchurch which was published in early 1920 as a pamphlet entitled Indentured labour – Is it slavery?

Holland begins by tracing the brutal history of indentured labour under the British flag in South Africa, where 60,000 Chinese labourers were recruited to work in the mines from 1904 to 1910. (Despite ‘hut taxes’ and ‘wife taxes’ imposed in order to force the indigenous population into the mines, they had become increasingly unwilling to work in these death-traps. “Out of 58,250 natives employed in the mines there were 3,085 deaths in nine months.”)

Around 4,200 Chinese miners in Witwatersrand, taken between 1904 and 1910. Photo: South African History Online

He quotes a report to the House of Commons in the UK on the tortures suffered by the Chinese labourers. “Chinamen, if they refuse to go to work, are tied up by their pigtails to poles until their heels are off the ground, and then lashed with canes.” Where British miners in South Africa were earning £1 per day before the war, after the war the Chinese were earning 1 shilling per day. [20 shillings = £1.] Consequently, wages of all other workers also fell, and unemployment rose dramatically.

The Chinese labourers were all male. Although about 5,000 applied to bring their wives and families with them, as they had been led to believe would happen, only two women and twelve children were brought over. This led to “innumerable riots,” according to the report, “largely on account of conflicts between the Kaffirs and the Chinese, because the Kaffirs were defending their women folk from interference by the Chinese coolies.” [The racist pejorative “Kaffir” was the term commonly used by the colonial authorities to refer to indigenous South Africans at that time. The term “coolie,” a word of South Asian origin, was used to describe indentured labourers of all nationalities. It apparently had no special pejorative connotation at that time, although it has since become a racist slur.]

Closer to home, and also under the British flag, were the indentured labourers of New Guinea, where, according to official policy, “Each employee is to be given one loin-cloth, one blanket, one bowl and one spoon, provided that the blanket, bowl and spoon can be charged to the employee at current local prices.” The fortunate native is to get his loin-cloth free, Holland comments, but it will probably need two months wages to pay for the other items named. The indentured servants could legally be flogged for “gross insubordination” “desertion from employment” and “wilful false statements before any court.”

Girmityas (indentured labourers) in Fiji, nineteenth century. Photo: Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India

In reporting the situation in Fiji, Holland quotes official reports by Rev. Dr. Burton, who describes the compound where the Indian indentured labourers were accommodated as ‘the most degrading site on earth.’

Some women were brought from India, but they were far outnumbered by the men. Another investigator, Rev. Andrews, found that under the Indian Immigration Ordinance every Indian woman in Fiji was declared to be the vassal of four men. If a man’s wife came to him from India, he was notified that she was common property. “The results as far as syphilis and gonorrhoea cannot be in doubt,” Rev. Andrews stated. The labourers were herded into compounds, where it was common to find twenty or thirty men, women and children sleeping and eating in one room. In Holland’s words, “it was a human piggery, a cesspit of human obscenity.”

Among the indentured labourers the suicide rate was twenty times the rate in India, the murder rate eighty times higher. The greater portion of the people murdered were women; the majority of the suicides were men. Out of all this misery and degradation, Holland writes, the sugar capitalists have amassed their millions – and at an even higher rate during the war, when the price of sugar rose by £5 per ton.

Indentured labourers outside the ‘coolie lines’
Photo: Fiji Museum

When these official reports were made public back in India, the resulting outcry compelled the Viceroy of India to announce that the indenture system would be brought to an end soon. However, when it became known in 1917 that they intended to keep recruiting for another five years, “Then ensued one of the most remarkable events in modern history. For the first time on record the women of India came out of their seclusion on to the public platform and pleaded before immense audiences for the honour of their sisters.”  The indenture was abolished immediately, although those already contracted were required to work out their contracts.

Holland’s pamphlet also describes the hellish conditions of the Kanak slaves who built the Queensland sugar industry in the nineteenth century, the horrors of Belgian rule in the Congo, and those still being practised by the British Peruvian Amazon Company. (Holland was unaware of it, but the slaves in the Peruvian Amazon probably included some kidnapped from Pacific Islands including Tonga by a slaver operating out of Wellington in the mid-nineteenth century.)

When he comes to Samoa, and the question of the continuation of the system of indentured Chinese labour put in place by the German colonists, Holland takes up the reason given by Massey for this continuation: “the Samoans won’t work.”  The fact is, Holland says, the Samoans absolutely decline to work for the Germans under coolie conditions.

“The Samoans live in a tropical land, where fruits and other vegetable food abound and fish is plentiful. While they
held the land, they did not need to work for wages. The Germans, however, were gradually getting possession of the land; and the coming of the trader and the capitalist made it necessary for Samoa to move transitionally towards the relentlessness of Twentieth Century Capitalism.”

“This is what we are now being called upon to perpetuate – slavery under the British flag: slavery imposed by Germany, to be continued by New Zealand.”

(to be continued)

2 responses to “Indentured labourers at the forefront of early anti-colonial struggles in the Pacific

  1. Pingback: Cruise of the Mokoia – Harry Holland and anti-colonial struggles in Fiji and Samoa | A communist at large·

  2. Pingback: Journal Article Review of Sheng, F., & Smith, G. (2021). The Shifting Fate of China’s Pacific Diaspora. - Urban Oceania·

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