The New Zealand Administration of Sāmoa

The outbreak of World War I was a time of upheaval and change for the world. As soon as New Zealand entered the war there was a rush to secure the Pacific.

The Samoa Expeditionary Force was raised, made up of 1,400 New Zealand men, to invade Western Sāmoa.

New Zealand occupied the islands from 30 August 1914. Germans in Sāmoa and New Zealand were interned, in certain cases just for the reason of having German descent during a time of conflict. Most men were sent either to Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf, near Auckland, Narrowneck in the North Shore, or Matiu Island in the Wellington Harbour.

Forty-two men remained in Sāmoa but were interned near Apia at the Taumeasina Centre. Their internment was different from those sent to New Zealand in that their proximity enabled them to receive visits from relatives.

Postcard, 'Hoisting the Union Jack in Samoa. 30th Aug 1914., 1914, Sāmoa, by Alfred James Tattersall. Purchased 2011. Te Papa (GH023108)

Sextants: tools of escape

The pair of sextants carry parallel stories of internment and attempted escape, one produced in Motuihe Island and the other on Matiu Island.

Sextant, 1917, New Zealand, by Walter von Zatorski. Gift of the Minister of Defence, 1918. We are actively seeking the copyright holder. Contact if you can help. Te Papa (NS000048)

The sextant above was constructed in the camp by Walter von Zatorski, a merchant marine cadet. The sextant was made from materials that had washed ashore or were found on the internment camp, and tools and solder to construct it were ordered via the camp canteen.

In December 1917, Count Felix von Luckner, a nobleman and naval officer who had surrendered in Levuka, Fiji, led a group of prisoners to escape Motuihe Islands.

The group used von Zatorsky’s sextant along with a map copied from a school atlas to navigate them to the Kermadec Islands around where they were recaptured. Upon their recapture the sextant was confiscated and gifted to the Dominion Museum in 1918 by the New Zealand Government.

Sextant, about 1918, Wellington, by Karl Wilhelm Mertin. We are actively seeking the copyright holder. Contact if you can help. Te Papa (GH001260)

This second sextant was produced by Karl Wilhelm Mertin, a civilian who had been interned as an enemy alien. He constructed this sextant out of a cigar box, stripped brass, copper tubing and glass which were found on the island. Mertin, along with William Knab, Alfred Kraut, and August ‘Hugo’ Kosel escaped on a makeshift raft constructed out of tea boxes and oil drums. They navigated to Ngauranga’s shore with the sextant and a compass.

Kosel was left on the beach due to an injury and died from exposure there before being found by police. Mertin, Knab and Kraut were captured soon after leaving the beach. It came into the Dominion Museum’s holdings in June 1919.

Going Home?

The sextants demonstrate an ease at which prisoners were able to find or acquire supplies and the trust that was bestowed upon them by guards in doing so, at least at Motuihe. Conditions of internment camps were changeable and dependant on place or who was in command.

At the end of the war, German internees were often disallowed from returning to Sāmoa in spite of having businesses, homes, and families that remained on the island. In the case of mixed German-Sāmoan families, these men were generally exempted from deportation from Sāmoa or repatriation back to Germany. Nor were the men able to leave internment immediately, some were detained for 6-12 months more. A similar system of internment was implemented during World War II.

Sāmoa and the Influenza Epidemic

The influenza epidemic reached Western Sāmoa’s shores with the arrival of the SS Talune in November 1918. The ship’s arrival in Apia was met with only a cursory health inspection and passengers were allowed to disembark, despite crew and passengers aboard being ill since their departure in Auckland and after a stop in Fiji.

The epidemic was mishandled by the New Zealand administration; no attempt was made to quarantine areas where the infection had already spread, and doctors were not available to Sāmoans who lived inland. Telegraph requests to New Zealand by the Administration asking for help were rejected, but the Administration also refused American aid when assistance from Eastern Sāmoa was offered.

The Samoan Influenza Epidemic Commission

A Royal Commission was assembled by New Zealand in 1919 to inquire into the causes of the outbreak of influenza in Western Sāmoa and how the ensuing epidemic was handled. The commission, appointed by the New Zealand Government, was headed by George Elliot as Chairman, Thomas Wilson, and William Moorhouse.

The Commission travelled through Sāmoa and Tonga during May and June 1919, gathering information for the inquiry. In their final report, the Commission put the death toll at 8,500 people, but that figure was likely higher.

Sāmoa Scrapbook and Album, 1919, by Colonel William Moorhouse. Te Papa (CA000315)

Te Papa holds a scrapbook of the inquiry’s organisation and the commission’s activities. The scrapbook was created by Colonel William Moorhouse and contained invitations to join the inquiry, itineraries, photographs, newspaper clippings, maps, and other notes. The album above is one of three albums produced by Moorhouse relating to the inquiry.

The scrapbook is a remarkable piece of material culture that documents not only official documentation and itineraries but also preserves important and relevant news through saved clippings. The photographs captured on the trip are mostly group shoots at meetings or general scenery of the islands. Invitations to parties, dance schedules, race tickets and betting numbers demonstrate a social element to the inquiry and the activities they engaged in.

It is an important document preserving the activities of the commission and entries written in the scrapbook reveal the movements and perspectives of Colonel Moorhouse. The scrapbook documents the ‘wonderful’ lunch they experienced at Ta‘isi Olaf Frederick Nelson’s house ahead of a meeting, Nelson being a prominent businessman and later politician and activist. A visit to the lava flow caused by Mount Matavanu’s eruption more colourfully described the scene ‘looking like petrified porridge’.

Sāmoa Scrapbook and Album, 1919, by Colonel William Moorhouse. Te Papa (CA000315)

The Mau Movement

The appalling handling of the influenza epidemic in Sāmoa soured the New Zealand administration. That the influenza mainly affected Sāmoan men in what should have been the prime of their lives created a cultural disconnect and broke down traditional networks through which knowledge was passed down. The relationship between the New Zealand administrations and the wider Sāmoan population continued to be tumultuous.

The Mau movement was revitalised in 1926 through the efforts of Ta‘isi Olaf Frederick Nelson, resulting from a trip to Wellington that year to lobby for Sāmoa’s self-rule. The Sāmoan-led movement used primarily peaceful resistance tactics, yet Nelson was exiled to New Zealand in 1928 for his activities.

On 29 December 1929, a peaceful demonstration by the Mau movement ended in tragedy when New Zealand military police fired upon the protestors. Eleven Sāmoans were killed and approximately 50 were injured; Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III who had led the movement since Nelson’s exile died from his wounds after being shot from behind. The tragic event became known as Black Saturday.

The Ia Samoa Uma Leaflet

Leaflet, 'Ia Samoa Uma', 1930, Sāmoa, by New Zealand Government. Purchased 2013. Te Papa (GH024203)

This leaflet was part of New Zealand’s ongoing efforts to suppress the revitalised Mau movement. It is a significant piece of history entangled in the history of Sāmoan resistance movements and attempts to assert agency.

It rests on the cusp of New Zealand’s declaration that the Mau were a seditious organisation and that wearing the uniform, a navy blue lavalava with a white stripe, was made illegal on 13 January 1930. The leaflet was produced in response to Nelson’s libel case against the New Zealand Herald which was eventually discontinued. Translated into English, it reads:

To All of Samoa

Nelson has now withdrawn his pledge/statements which he sent to the "Herald" newspaper, and he will be repaying any monies owed to the newspaper in regards to this matter.

The chosen witnesses have returned to Samoa.

The reason for this is because:

  1. The search is now finished and complete.

  2. Monies donated/given to the Mau has been a waste of time

  3. The Mau has been deceived by false statements/wrong information.

19 February 1930.

S. S. Allen, 


Nelson’s five-year exile ended in 1933 and he returned to Sāmoa. Mau headquarters and residences continued to be raided by the police in this period and members were arrested. Nelson was again arrested and exiled to New Zealand only six months after his return. Conditions of his second exile included an eight-month prison sentence. The 1935 New Zealand election and the instatement of the Labour Government was a turning point whereafter the administration in Sāmoa was relaxed somewhat. Nelson’s exile was dissolved in 1936.

A “goodwill” visit was arranged by the New Zealand Government during which numerous meetings with Mau members, district representatives, and local people met with a delegation. They discussed pertinent issues and the concerns held by the Mau and the general population. However, the mission did not quite meet its intention by dismissing the calls for redress.

Around the World: Twentieth-century Sāmoan Stamps

The interwar period would soon come to an end at the outbreak of World War II in 1939 until 1945. The League of Nations was dissolved and replaced by the United Nations under which Sāmoa became a Trust Territory. New Zealand continued to administer Sāmoa as its trustee until independence was achieved in 1962.

Stamps for Western Sāmoa had been produced in 1935 and 1939, but a new series of stamps post-World War II were designed in 1952. The stamps were designed with a variety of different imagery that could represent Sāmoa: traditional fale falehouseSāmoan, natural sights, flags of New Zealand and Sāmoa, and cultural activities. The images were often symbols of that were synonymous to Sāmoa as a place or could promote particular aspects of the territory such as industry and commerce.

Stamps of Industry

Issued two shillings Western Samoa 'Preparing Copra' stamp in yellow-brown, 1952, London, by Bradbury, Wilkinson & Co. Ltd. The New Zealand Post Museum Collection, Gift of New Zealand Post Ltd. 1992. We are actively seeking the copyright holder. Contact if you can help. Te Papa (PH002711).

The two-shilling postage stamp shows the preparation of copra by removing the husks of coconuts. Its production was likely commissioned by the New Zealand Post Office, though the stamp itself was produced in London by Bradbury, Wilkinson & Co. Ltd. The original design was created by Nigel Alan Dow, who designed many other stamps for New Zealand, Sāmoa, and England.

That copra production had become symbolic of Western Sāmoa to put on postage stamps in a set that also highlighted cultural practices and roles, iconic scenery, and important buildings is significant. As already established, German plantation companies were responsible for the commodification of and development of copra production in Sāmoa. It harkens back, perhaps without the intention to, to nearly 100 years of German presence on the island and the development of trade and commerce.

Contextualising the Collection

This selection of objects can uncover the complex and entangled web of colonial, commercial, personal, and certainly changeable relations between Sāmoa, Germany, and New Zealand. This 100-year period of exchange saw the movement of people across islands and continents, sometimes willingly and at others forcibly.

Themes of conflict, trade, labour, unequal partnerships and resistance are embodied through these objects. They tell individual stories that can contribute to a larger whole to the narrative of each country’s respective history. These relationships have always been entangled and changeable, and the material culture within our collections is a doorway through which we can better visualise and interpret them.