By Michael Field
A forgotten photo from a savage conflict in Sāmoa, this is one of Pacific journalism’s more significant images (above).
It was taken in 1899 by Otago journalist Malcolm Ross, New Zealand’s first war correspondent. It was probably April and given Ross’ reporting, it’s likely to have been around Apia; Vailele, Lotapa or Vailima.
The more compelling mystery are the two women in the picture. Water carriers and perhaps lovers of the men peering through the jungle for the enemy?
The war Ross was covering was a complex imperial affair. Sāmoa was nominally an independent state, governed from Mulinu’ū. Britain, Germany and the United States wanted Sāmoa and their technique was to back particular tama’āiga or paramount chiefs to become “king” of Sāmoa.
This played out in 1899 when Germany backed Mata’afa Iosefa as their king while Britain and the United States preferred Malietoa Tanumafili I.
Full scale war broke out. For the first time since the War of Independence, Britain and the United States became allies. Warships were sent to Sāmoa and their skill was in what they called “punitive actions” – they bombarded Apia and other Upolu villages without warning. The Americans provided a Gatling gun which was used to pour lead into villages.
Many Sāmoans were killed.
The Sāmoans on the British and American side wore red turbans; the Mata’afa forces white turbans.
Mata’afa’s forces proved very good at fortifications and with the Germans providing ammunition, there was much fighting.
An Australian naval officer, Guy Gaunt, was sent ashore from HMS Porpoise to organize a land force. Gaunt became a famous naval officer two decades later, during the Great War, but in Sāmoa he was a young single man with a mission.
That is Gaunt in the left of the photo; a dark shirt and a backward sloping hat; leading on a stick or, perhaps, sword. Gaunt’s force – nicknamed “the Never Glorious Army” – were decisive in the fighting. Gaunt went into battle on Sammy, a horse he purchased locally.
By his own account decades later, Gaunt was swimming in the Vailima stream, wearing just his underwear, when a couple of Sāmoan women joined him. One of them became close to him; going into battle as a water-carrier. She was said to be named Tulia and was a taupou from one of the nearby villages.
It could be Tulia in the photo, barely visible standing behind Gaunt.
When the fighting was over and Porpose returned to Sydney, the Daily Telegraph described Gaunt as the hero of Sāmoa and said Tulia was “one of the most sweetly pretty girls in Sāmoa”.
She was said to always be with Gaunt 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.”
The story was so successful that a Sydney photographer created a postcard, for sale, entitled Tulia the Sāmoan Girl.
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 held the Robert Louis Stevenson homestead at Vailima. The Malietoa red tops attacked it.
Gaunt and Tulia were in the fighting and according to Ross, a German flag was found flying there: “It was captured and handed to the taupo, or village belle, who comes with the troops as water carrier.”
After seizing Vailima, Gaunt, Tulia and the men went back to Apia where the German flag was handed over to a naval officer. He replied that as they were not at war with Germany, their national flag could not be disgraced.
“But the flag had been captured in fair fight from the rebels, and he would take it off to the senior officer to show to him, and report how it was captured,” Ross reported. “It would then be handed back to the taupou.”
With that, Tulia seems to disappear from history.
In the photo, of course, there is another woman, standing in front of Gaunt.
Sāmoa’s photo historian, Tony Brunt, has examined the photo closely and wondered – in “dreamy speculation” as he put it – whether she was Charlotte ‘Lotte’ Volkmann. He produced a photo of her taken in a group in 1906 (Traub Family Collection). He says Lotte was a quarter Sāmoan, her mum having been one of the beauties of colonial Apia (from the Cowley family). Lotte had strong German connections; and that represents a problem for her being in the photo. The Germans were on the other side – with Malietoa’s white caps.
Tony Brunt says Lotte’s life took a sad turn. She lost her baby at birth in 1906 and then she herself was swept away in the influenza epidemic of 1918, being interred, I think, in the mass grave at Vaimea.
Gaunt was later so famous he rated an autobiography. In it he does not mention any of the women he married, or his children. He did mention Tulia – and his horse Sammy.
The 1899 war was a vile, inglorious affair. At Vailele, the Mata’afa forces ambushed a larger British and American patrol. It was such an fight that four of the Americans were later awarded the Medal of Honour. Several British and American officers were killed. They were buried at Mulinu’ū and still have monuments on them. They were exhumed a little later to be reunited with their heads after missionaries found them. In subsequent battles, the Americans and British buried their dead at sea.