By Michael Field
History, in Sāmoa, is mostly about men. Often it is not even about Sāmoan men, but odd mercenary characters from other lands. Sāmoa tourism promoters spend millions idealising Robert Louis Stevenson and always overlooks the rich characters around him.
Many Sāmoans may be unaware of these astonishing characters and the events that surrounded them.
Events of 1899, for example, a time when hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent Sāmoan men, women and children were savagely bombarded in their villages, by Britain’s Royal Navy and the United States Navy.
It’s a little told if astonishing story. As I’ve pointed out before, there are monuments in Sāmoa, Britain and the US to the white men killed in Sāmoa in 1899, but none anywhere to the Sāmoans. The United States awarded its highest bravery honours, the Congressional Medal of Honor, to soldiers who fought Sāmoans... but their victims were forgotten.
Some day the story will be properly told.
By chance I found at Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences a set of little known photographs taken during the conflict by visiting photographer Charles Kerry. There is a particularly striking shot of a group of soldiers fighting for the young Malietoa Tanumafili who the British and Americans had decided would be ‘king’ of Sāmoa. This was opposed by the majority of the country who were behind the leadership of the remarkable Mata’afa Iosefa (or Iosefo - literally depending on your religion).
What is striking in Kerry’s photograph is the obvious leadership of two women. Their names, today, are unknown but there is no doubting their significance.
On the right is a tall, defiant looking woman. She shows no intimidation, no suggestion that she is out of place, or posed. She holds a large knife, no doubt ready to use. Off to the left is a shorter woman - perhaps even a girl - also with a knife, seemingly swinging it. Behind the women stand around 30 men, ready for battle of some kind.
The war of 1899 was fought with a wide array of technologies; from bush knives to a special kind of high explosive naval shell that was tested by the Royal Navy on villages and their civilian occupants. The next time it was used was in the Great War on soldiers.
Perhaps, some might say, these two women were ceremonial - they might taupo.
But then there is this picture:
And clearly there is a woman in the second row, levelling her rifle.
The New Zealand war correspondent Malcolm Ross also took photos of women in front line action. The best known of them is this one with two women at the lines in the siege of Āpia:
Again the women are unnamed (the white men are all named). One of the women could well be Tulia, a taupou from one of the nearby villages.
It could be Tulia.
Malcolm Ross made her something of a celebrity and in a newspaper account in Australia said Tulia was “one of the most sweetly pretty girls in Sāmoa”. Ross reported that Charles Kerry created a postcard, for sale, entitled Tulia the Sāmoan Girl.
She was said to always on the front line.
“In the jungle,” the newspaper reported, “when the men could scarcely see each other, much less their enemies, and with bullets flying all around, Tulia would suddenly show herself, and shout out to the ducky warriors, ‘Fight, fight!’ in tones of earnest encouragement. ‘She is as plucky as they are made’ said one.
In his reporting, Malcom Ross called her Tulla or Mary.
“She always carried water with her on the march, and at the most critical times she might be observed raising herself from behind a log and handing the men a pineapple, a banana, or some breadfruit. ”
Ross asked Malietoa about women being in the frontline and he replied: “It is our custom to allow women to come into the battle with us. If they are there the men will be ashamed to run away. They bring food and water too. Killing makes thirst.”
Mata’afa’s men held Vailima at one point when Malietoa’s men attacked it.
In the fighting a German flag was found flying there. Reported Ross “It was captured and handed to the taupou, or village belle, who comes with the troops as water carrier.”
With that, Tulia disappeared from history, forgotten even by her own people.