Cruise of the Mokoia – Harry Holland and anti-colonial struggles in Fiji and Samoa

(Second of two articles on indentured labourers and the early anti-colonial struggles in the Pacific. First part here)

Very soon after the publication of Holland’s pamphlet on indentured labour in 1920, the Indian sugar plantation labourers in Fiji went on strike. The Governor of Fiji called on the New Zealand government to send armed forces to stand by in case of a broader uprising; Massey quickly agreed to send troops on the ship Tutanekai, armed with a machine gun. Fiji was a British colony at the time, and New Zealand had no formal political or administrative responsibility. Holland sent a protest letter.

Indian indentured labourers in Fiji. CSR in caption stands for Colonial Sugar Refining Company. Women workers played a leading role in the 1920 strike. Photo: Australian National Library

“I wish to lose no time in entering the strongest possible protest against the employment of, or the threat to employ, the armed forces of New Zealand against the workers of Fiji, who are now engaged in an industrial conflict with the concerns which until quite recently have operated, and apparently are desirous still to operate, one of the worst forms of slavery known to civilisation – a system of indentured labor involving widespread practices of fraud and deceit by the recruiting agents in India, whence the laborers came…  [The indenture system] involved laboring from 5.30 in the morning for 1 shilling a day for men, and 5½ pence for women, [12 pence = 1 shilling, 20 shillings = £1 – JR] and it also involved compulsory prostitution. The housing and living conditions were degrading and abominable in the extreme. Out of this slavery and Immorality and degradation the sugar monopolies have been able to coin millions of profits. The horror of it was only halted by the determined protests of the women of India themselves…”

New Zealand Labour Party Parliamentarians 1922. Harry Holland seated, second from left. Also joining delegation to Fiji and Samoa were Ted Howard, standing left. James McCombs, seated left, and Fred Bartram, seated right Photo: National Library of New Zealand

Other protests followed from unions opposed to military intervention in a labour dispute. Watersiders and seafarers in Auckland blacked the Tutanekai, and only agreed to work it when they were persuaded that it was not going to intervene in a labour dispute, but only to save the lives of white people threatened by the Indians.

Prompted partly by the strike and fears of a broader uprising, the New Zealand government sent a Parliamentary Commission to visit Fiji, the New Zealand possessions of Cook Islands and Niue, American Samoa, and finally, newly-acquired Western Samoa.  The delegation was headed by Defence Minister James Allen. Holland joined the delegation, together with fellow Labour MPs James McCombs, Ted Howard, and Fred Bartram. Holland sent back detailed reports of the visit from each of the islands, which were published in the Maoriland Worker as a series under the headline Cruise of the Mokoia.

The Parliamentary Commission was deeply divided between the Labour members and the rest. On arrival in Suva, Fiji, the government member leading the Commission, Defence Minister James Allen, attempted to prevent Holland from speaking to the Indian workers. “He said, although the strike was ended, there was a serious danger that it might break out again if the Indians were led to believe that there was any sympathy whatever with them in New Zealand. He further said we were there as the guests of the Fijian Government, and urged that we should look to the Government alone for all our information.”

Holland refused to give such an undertaking. “I impressed upon the Minister that in every case in which the workers, black or white, were in conflict with their exploiters I conceived it to be my duty to stand on their side, and since I was an Internationalist this applied to the workers of whatever country – not merely to the workers of the country in which I lived.”

Holland first spoke to the editors of the Fiji Times, who “proffered the information that the trouble just ended was not by any means an economic strike, but a racial trouble. They indignantly declared that the Indians actually wanted equal political and social rights with the whites, and this they appeared to regard as both unthinkable and impossible.” Holland’s movements in Suva were constantly shadowed, especially when he tried to contact Dr Manilal, a lawyer and emissary of Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, who was named as one of the leaders of the Indians by the editors of the Fiji Times. 1

Manilal Maganlal Doctor, emissary of Mohandas Gandhi and spokesperson for striking labourers in Fiji

Holland succeeded in contacting Dr Manilal. From him, he learned that the strike had begun among road workers and municipal labourers, then spread to domestic employees and the sugar workers, and raised the general demand for a 5-shilling daily wage. The Indian Women’s Association had petitioned the Governor of Fiji, Sir Cecil Hunter Rodwell, in late January, detailing the price rises in a range of basic necessities, which had eroded the real value of wages by two-thirds.

“There is no doubt whatever that the Indian women took extreme measures to compel certain men to join the strikers,” Holland wrote, “and there were clashes between armed government forces and the unarmed Indians, in which an Indian woman was killed and a number of Indians were injured. The whites seem to have adopted equally strong measures to compel the Indians to return to work. On one occasion at least a machine gun was taken out; and when the Tutanekai arrived the Indians say they were told that “the strikers must go back to work, otherwise the soldiers from the New Zealand man-of-war would be used to force them back at the point of the guns.

“Meanwhile wholesale arrests had been made, wholesale prosecutions instituted. Two hundred persons (including some 25 women) were seized, and more than 130 of these had been sentenced at the time of our visit. About 115 had been sent to jail each with one month’s hard labor. Eight had been sentenced to one year; one to nine months; about 10 women had been awarded from three weeks to one month. An attempt was made (by business houses) to cut off the food supplies of the families of certain of the men regarded as leaders.”

A part of the delegation then travelled to Lautoka to visit a sugar mill, where Holland was again asked not to speak to Indians, because “We were to be the guests of the Colonial Sugar Refining Co.” Holland repeated his intention to make inquiries from all sources. Once again, the delegation head backed off from refusing him permission to go ashore.

At Ba, Holland had the opportunity to see the ‘coolie lines’ – “long, unlovely structures divided into cubicles 10 feet by 7, in each of which either a family or three single men will live. Their only floor is a cement made by the Indians of a mixture of cow-dung and clay… Most certainly no well-to-do New Zealander would think of stabling his horse in a CSR Company coolie cubicle.” By talking to an Indian missionary he found that “arising out of the indenture system and the “moral” conditions it has developed there is constant trouble between the Indians over women; and further that the Indians are still subjected to beating in connection with their employment.”

On returning to Suva there was another strike in progress; this time Holland was prevented from disembarking.

Summing up the experience, Holland said, “We were told that the vast majority of the Indians are only waiting for ships to take them away from Fiji – “to leave this hell on earth created by the greed and avarice of the white planters and their Fiji Government.” They declared that [there] would be an exodus whenever transport facilities were provided. Some, they said, had not yet been ten years on the islands, and were not entitled to free return passage until that period had expired. When certain of the whites declaimed against the Indians and insisted on the menace to the lives of the Europeans during the recent trouble, I suggested that a solution of the trouble would be found in the wholesale repatriation of the Indians. “But we must have cheap labor,” was the reply. The Indians were all right so long as they were kept in their place, and were content with low wages, and restrained from demanding political equality and social recognition and all that sort of thing.”

The Mokoia then sailed for Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tutuila in American Samoa.

At Aitutaki, Holland reports, “During the meeting with the Council it transpired that a system of forced labor was in operation on the island – a system from the obligations of which, so far as actual labor went, the whites and their employees were immune. Under this system the native is required to give 20 days’ free labor to the work of road-making and maintenance, or forfeit 16 shillings.”

At Niue, “We had a meeting with the Island Council, and the spokesman for the natives was unsparing in his enumeration of the promises that had been made to the Niueans and never kept. Lord Ranfurly had come as Queen Victoria’s representative, at a time when the island was against annexation, and had made promises which eventually led to their consenting to annexation to New Zealand; but Ranfurly’s promises were never kept. Then Mr Seddon [New Zealand’s Liberal Prime Minister in 1901] had come and made more promises – in fact, had promised them all sorts of things; but Mr Seddon’s promises had not been honored. The speaker – his name was Uea – had been away with the Niue contingent at the war; and when he went into restaurants at Auckland the white people turned up their noses…”  (150 soldiers from Niue, about 4% of the island’s population, served in the New Zealand forces in the Great War.)

“They wanted a shipping service, more schools – ” we want to give our children more education”  –  and changes in the Immigration Ordinance. Of course, Sir James Allen made some more promises. Then he presented the chiefs with some tobacco; but to Uea he gave a pipe!”

Richard Seddon, New Zealand Prime Minister in 1900, and his wife Louisa, with King Ngamaru Rongotini and Queen Makea of Rarotonga, about the time New Zealand annexed the Cook Islands. Photo: National Library of New Zealand

Pago Pago on Tutuila was “the cleanest and healthiest” of the places visited. “Since America assumed full control of Eastern Samoa, the status of the islands has never been defined. Neither the constitution nor the laws of the United States have been extended to them. The Eastern Samoans, therefore, have no status as American citizens, but they ‘owe allegiance to the American flag’… I noticed that the average native got off the footpath every time he met whites coming in the opposite direction. This was one of the experiences that brought no pleasure to the thoughtful.”

Holland had thoroughly researched the colonisation of Samoa and its struggle for independence when the issue of New Zealand’s annexation of Samoa first arose at the end of the war. He published a pamphlet on that history, Samoa – a story that teems with tragedy, drawing heavily on the writings of Scottish expatriate writer resident in Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson, and declared the Labour movement to be against annexation. “Because Socialism proclaims itself against the oppression of a race or of a sex or of an individual, the Labour Movement may be relied on to stand firm in its opposition to the annexation of Samoa or any other country. It is true we do not want to see Western Samoa handed back to Germany, notwithstanding that “our” diplomats sold – or rather swapped – it to Germany. We do not want to see Germany with a naval base in the Pacific; EQUALLY WE DO NOT WANT TO SEE ANY OTHER COUNTRY WITH A NAVAL BASE IN THE PACIFIC.”

He arrived in Apia on 5 March, and saw the wreck of the Adler, one of three German and three American warships that were sunk by a mighty hurricane in 1889 during the period of rival imperialist bidding for control over Samoa. Only the British ship had made it to the safety of the open sea. “…Before and after the storm, the Samoans had no great reason to love any of the three nations named. There had been times when the British and German gunboats steamed out together to shell villages, destroy homes, and kill the Samoan people – as when, for instance, the Miranda (British) and the Hyena (German) went out in 1884. Then it was said that the two flags floating in unison “could not fail to impress the Samoans.” But the shells falling in unison impressed them considerably more. There was at least one instance in which, the British and American gunboats having shelled Apia and its neighbourhood, those two champions of the rights of small nationalities were required by a neutral arbitrator (I think he was the King of Sweden) to pay compensation for the damage done.”

German warship Adler, wrecked in Apia harbour during hurricane of 1889. The wreck was still visible when Holland visited in 1921

“However, when the “blackness of midnight” fell in 1889, the gallant and chivalrous Samoans – the people on whom the guns of both nations had been turned, the people who were the victims of the trading interests of all nationalities – came down from their hills and freely risked their own lives to rescue their foes. There is no greater thing written into history. One hundred and fifty lives were lost; but that total easily would have been doubled had the Samoans left their enemies to look after themselves. And one writer has told us that when the rescued Americans were subsequently camped ashore, the American commander had to threaten his own men with American guns to protect the Samoan women from them! Need there be any wonder that the Samoan has so little real respect for the white man?

“The town of Apia from the beginning has been the main storm centre of the intertribal and political struggles between the natives themselves; the trading, political, and international struggles between the profiteers of America, Britain, and Germany; and on the other hand the inevitable struggles for domination between the three nationalities (combined or separately) and the natives…

“We were welcomed by a detachment of native Boy Scouts and the school children, the latter singing “Britons never, never shall be slaves.” Some of us remembered the Chinese slaves on the plantations and smiled. We smiled again when it was borne in upon us that some of the little singers themselves were half-caste Chinese children whose fathers were slaves perpetuated under the rule of those very same Britons who never, never, etc… I might digress here to mention that every Briton and every German we met at Western Samoa was in favour of indentured labor. There were no differences of opinion between the two nationalities on this score…

It is safe to say that the people of Samoa in the mass are not in favour of New Zealand administrating their affairs. The whites told us in plainly-printed language that from the beginning they had never been in favour of Samoa being placed under the control of New Zealand. And long before we left New Zealand we had the information that after the influenza epidemic – in connection with which our Administration was worse than criminal, and which resulted in the loss of about eight thousand Samoan lives (nearly one fourth of the whole native population) – so strong was the natives’ antipathy to this country that they went so far as to petition to be placed under an American Administration…

“The two High Chiefs of Samoa are both of royal descent; if the kingship still existed Malietoa would wear the crown. With this fact in mind the chiefs presented their demand, namely, that the High Chiefs should rank in future as Princes of Samoa, and each receive an allowance of £500 per annum. (By the way, the Prince of Wales gets £50,000 – a hundred times as much per year as the Samoans ask for their princes.) They wanted unrestricted power to hold public meetings; they demanded that all proclamations before being made should be determined by the of Samoa and the Administration; that two Samoans be appointed to attend the New Zealand Parliament; that Samoan boys be sent to New Zealand to be trained occupationally; that hospitals, college, and school houses be erected, and Samoan young people be trained in New Zealand as teachers; and that the revenues of Samoa be controlled by their own Faipules [representatives,] … [and] that the salaries of Samoans in Government employ be equal to the salaries of the whites in similar employ.

James Allen responded to these demands, taking particular care to explain that “we only knew one prince —the Prince of Wales!” Holland comments, “the Samoans were permitted to hear no viewpoint expressed concerning their requests except that of the Massey Government…” He scoffed at Allen’s fixation with the princely titles as “bordering on the ludicrous… Far more important were the claims put forward for right of assembly, freedom of speech, education, equal pay for equal work, pensions, public utilities, hospitals, protection against epidemics, protection against profiteering, and repatriation of the Constabulary. I have no doubt whatever that the Samoans will receive the united support of the Labor movement in connection with each of these latter demands.”

“The four Labor members noted that in their demands the chiefs made no mention whatever of the indentured labor problem… This question had been discussed in the native villages prior to our coming, and … the common people fully understood that the chiefs would make a strong protest to the Parliamentary Party against a continuance of the system… The Labor members were thus compelled to make Individual investigations… Our individual inquiries in every case resulted in bearing out that the Samoans are unitedly opposed to the continuance of the system. So far as my personal inquiries went, in no case did I find a native who favoured the principle… The bitterness on the part of the natives is extreme, and I have no doubt whatever that if the system is continued it will result in violent outbreaks on the part of the Samoans against the Chinese… I submit that New Zealand cannot afford to be a party to holding the Samoans down by force of arms in order that a horde of Chinese or other slaves may be maintained in the country. Only in this way did the Germans find it possible to curb the Samoan resentment against the system and its consequences… In the past they seem to have wholly blamed the Chinese and not the white conquerors… To-day the Samoan will be more likely to fix a larger measure of blame for the system on the shoulders where the responsibility belongs.”

Holland evidently enjoyed the Pacific tour. For this brief moment, he was in his element once again, a revolutionary journalist reporting on the conditions of working people, the facts of a strike, the profits of the capitalists, and the self-serving explanations of their agents in government and press.  The Cruise of the Mokoia articles include some of his best reporting, combining all this with an appreciation of the literature of Robert Louis Stevenson and others, notes on the beauty of a Niuean sunset and of the sapphire waters of Pago Pago harbour, a wonderful account of the perilous crossing of the Niue reef in a whaleboat, a kava ceremony in Samoa, and wry reflections on such details as the lectures and entertainments on board ship, and the American Star Spangled Banner: (“The second verse of the Anthem has always appealed to me as repellent in sentiment and an atrocity in poetry.”) There are some brilliant sketches of the functioning and mentality of colonial administrators at work.

On returning to New Zealand, reports in the Maoriland Worker indicate that he spoke in Napier, Hawera, and to an audience of school children in Christchurch, about what he had seen on the tour, the question of indentured labour, and the Samoan struggle for self-determination. Few others in the Labour Party seem to have shared his belief in the centrality of the issue. As he expected, exposing the facts of the system led quickly to the abolition of the indenture system, although New Zealand’s de facto annexation of Western Samoa went ahead.

Many Chinese labourers in Samoa were repatriated at the end of their term of indenture, some who had married Samoan women stayed on. The process of ending the indentures dragged on longer in Fiji. The difficulty was finding ships that would actually take the workers back to India, rather than dump them on the nearest island outside of Fiji government jurisdiction. The opportunity opened up for Indian labourers to rent small plots and become tenant cane-growers. At least one-third of the Indians remained in Fiji after abolition.

Footnote:

  1. Holland discusses in the article the efforts by the authorities to frame Manilal on sedition charges, accusing him of causing the violence which occurred when the police prevented a group of workers from crossing a bridge to travel to Suva. Although he was never charged with any crime, the Fiji governor banned him from visiting the areas in Fiji where Indians resided, effectively expelling him. He left for New Zealand in April 1920, where he was refused admission as a barrister and solicitor on the grounds that the Governor’s action showed that he was ‘not of good character.’ Several other countries did likewise. Manilal returned to India, where he became a leader of the Labour Kisan Party, one of the components of the early communist movement in India.

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