By Michael Field
I’ve always liked a photo that appears in Sāmoan history, but usually without explanation. Eight or so fautasi, crowded around a large ship in Āpia harbour.
Now I know and it’s quite a story, set around events of 1899 in Sāmoa. Depending on who is telling the story, and why, the photo shows a moment that marks the end of a “civil war” between Mata’afa Iosefa and Malietoa Tanumafili. The other more accurate version is that the picture shows one of the final acts in a war between Britain and the United States aimed at preventing Germany taking over Sāmoa. Thousands of Sāmoans were killed and maimed for this imperial chess game.
The three powers set up a trilaterial commission to end the affair and its three members were sent to Sāmoa to negotiate an end to the conflict they started. They travelled on a United States Navy ship.
This is a bit of the story ….
On 13 May the USS Badger sailed into Āpia. An unprepossessing converted merchant ship, christened by being the first US naval vessel named after a burrowing mammal, she carried the members of the trilateral commission.
“The sun was just emerging from the eastern sea, its rays were just lighting up the green summits of the island mountains in front of us,” the American commission member, Bartlett Tripp later wrote. “The sea was calm and quiet, save that continuous billowy motion, that restless swell which never ceases and which is ever reminding you of that terrible reserve force it can bring into action when it desires.”
Malietoa’s forces were visible on the shore “while in the distance could be seen the fortifications and troops of the hostile forces of Mataafa. Drums were beating and flags were flying.”
Āpia had the appearance of a battlefield: “The shells from the war vessels, fired to dislodge the forces of Mataafa, had left their marks upon the houses and plantations surrounding the town and within a radius of 3 miles from the inner harbor, while the lawless acts of looting and foraging parties from either camp had left them a scene of devastation and desolation which always succeeds the invasion of armed forces of savage and civilized men… The white people whose homes had been pillaged and who had sought refuge in Apia, under the guns of the men-of-war, despondently awaited events which might again bring peace, and the inhabitants of the unhappy town, whose houses had been unluckily struck by the shells of a friendly fleet, and who sought shelter upon the shore, were about equally divided in their words of censure for the hostile forces of the natives and the vessels of their own fleet.”
It was suggested by the commission that both sides surrender their weapons. Tripp said naval officers thought this to be impossible as Sāmoans were in love with their guns and no act, no crime would get them to give them up: ‘“They can only be disarmed by a force sufficient in strength to take their arms by force”; and our attention as called to the attempt to disarm the forces of Mataafa a few years before when the German forces on the island were nearly annihilated.
A breakthrough occurred when Mata’afa agreed to meet with the commission on Badger. Several hundred went to the ship but only Mata’afa and 13 chiefs went aboard.
“It was a very pretty and unique sight to see these warriors in their native costumes as their fleet of boats approached our vessel,” Tripp said.
In Mata’afa he saw a man wearied by exile. He was 67, his work was nearly done, and wanted to be permitted to die and be with his forefathers.
“Mataafa was clad in a long white robe which came down to his feet and was partially gathered at the waist by some form of belt but flowing somewhat loosely about his large stalwart form, giving him, with his dignified mien and presence, something of the appearance of a Roman Senator. His head and feet were bare, and he wore no ornaments of any kind except a necklace of beads and a cross, the emblems of his church.”
The chiefs with him wore just lavalava. They were freshly oiled which “brought out distinctly the brilliant tattooing of the truck and limbs … and the splendid muscles of the limbs and body were displayed to best advantage by their native dignity of carriage, which is a distinguishing feature of their race. One or two suffered deforming filariasis but most, all over 1.8 metres, ”were a splendid looking body of men physically as could be seen in the prize ring or practicing rooms of the gymnasium”.
Carrot and stick followed. The great powers were sorry that Sāmoans were at war with each other. If they did not stop, the powers would send bigger ships than those already there to compel obedience: “if Sāmoans thought these vessels were large and their guns powerful which could reach Sāmoan houses three miles from shore, what would they think of the great war vessels of these nations which could fire great shells four times as far; which from the shore could destroy every Sāmoan house and village, and ruin and make waste every part of these beautiful islands…”
It was put to Mata’afa that he should break up the camps and surrender the weapons.
“Without communication with his chiefs,” Tripp said, “Mataafa drew himself up to his full height and slowly and with great dignity replied that he had read and heard of the wealth and power of the great nations from which the Commissioners came; that the Sāmoans had nothing but thanks to return to the great powers for what they had done for his people in sending the missionaries to teach them to be good, and to read and write.”
The weapons were private property that each man had paid for: “they loved their guns; they had cut much copra and worked hard to obtain them.”
Mata’afa wondered how the richest nations on earth could “compel the poor and ignorant Sāmoans to surrender up their property to those who did not need it; that the rich should take from the poor, what to them was so much; that the strong should with threats of force compel unwilling action of the weak; that Christian nations should send their missionaries to teach them morals, and their commissioners and soldiers to deprive them of their liberty and property.”
Mata’afa said they would not be a party to a peace that robbed them of their property and honor; “They preferred to become slaves, if they must, by compulsion and now by cowardly submission.”
The commissioners said they did not want the guns for themselves, but as a sign of good faith: “Where the guns of Mataafa would shoot 100 yards, those of the great powers would shoot 300; and where they could load and fire their guns a single time, the guns of the great powers could be discharged fifty or a hundred times.”
Again, Mata’afa rose: “His eye was bright and his voice clear, and he said with an inquiring tone, “If Mataafa lays down his arms will all Sāmoans lay down theirs? Will Malietoa Tanu, will Tamasese give up their guns?”’
The commission said that would be so. Mata’afa immediately agreed.
“The ending was so sudden,” Tripp said, ”the great object sought had been reached so quickly and unexpectedly, that at first the Commissioners were unable to comprehend its real effect.”
Food and drink were served. Mata’afa and party left the ship: “As they rowed away with their gay flags and banners waving in the light of the setting sun, singing their native songs accompanied by the music of their native instruments, it made one of the most unique and picturesque scenes I have ever witnessed.”
On 31 May Badger steamed around Mulinu’ū to Malie where Mata’afa and his men were ready to surrender 1800 guns. The commissioners said that was not all the weapons. Mata’afa agreed, saying there were weapons still in Savai’i but the seas had been too rough to go and get them. There were another 200 on the other side of ‘Upolu but they promised to surrender them. The commissioners believed Mata’afa; guns were handed over, receipts written out. Cabin bread and tea were given to all.
“Several old chiefs desired to have photographs of their guns,” Tripp said, “and in accordance with their wishes the artists on shipboard took pictures of themselves with their guns in their hands, copies of which pictures were afterwards given to the chiefs. Nearly all kissed their guns at parting with them, and then went cheerfully to their boats and returned to the shore.”
Malietoa’s guns were surrendered: “needle guns, Winchesters, Springfield rifles, Mausers, etc, some early useless from exposure to weather, but many of the newest patterns and were kept clean and bright.” Four thousand guns were surrendered.
Mata’afa and Malietoa, accompanied by 26 chiefs, went aboard Badger together to meet the commission on 20 June. Tripp was moved by what he saw: “…each chief grasped a chief of the opposite party by the hand and in accordance with the custom of the tribes inhaled his breath, a custom which generally prevails in the south sea islands among the Polynesian races. Instead of kissing they bring their noses together and inhale each other’s breath. This lasts for several seconds, and the attitude of the actors is much the same as in the act of kissing.” With that speeches and a meal of canned salmon, meats, sea biscuits and tea followed.