Over the past week or so I've been reading Pacific Prelude
, a book Margery Perham based on the diary she kept during her visits to Samoa and Australasia in 1929 and 1930. Perham visited the South Pacific as an unknown young Oxford don, but by the time she prepared her diary for publication in the 1970s she was regarded, especially in conservative circles, as one of the foremost authorities on twentieth century British colonialism.
Throughout her career Perham was most concerned with Africa, where Britain maintained an unwieldy collection of colonies until the 1960s, but she had become determined to visit Samoa after reading about the Mau Rebellion against New Zealand rule over the western part of the archipelago. Angry at the Kiwi administrators who had turned up and imposed their authority during World War One, Samoan chiefs and half-caste traders had built the Mau movement around the slogan Samoa mo Samoa (Samoa for the Samoans)
The Samoan resistance
to New Zealand rule is not difficult to understand. From the beginning, the officials and security forces Wellington despatched to Samoa showed a mixture of racism, incompetence, and arrogance. During the global influenza epidemic of 1918 a fifth of Samoans perished, because New Zealand officials had been too incompetent to quarantine ships arriving in Apia, and too proud to ask for medical assistance from the America administrators of the eastern island of Tutuila.
Later the New Zealanders had attempted to plant their Anglo-Saxon brand of capitalism in Samoa, by breaking up communal lands into individual plots and establishing special 'modernising' schools were local boys could be inculcated with bourgeois values. Samoan villages, with their apparently haphazard arrangements of fale and sprawling communal gardens, were forcibly 'tidied up' by the colonists, so that houses stood in rows before individual farmlets. Samoans who objected to the 'modernisation' of their society were rewarded with imprisonment or exile.
Like the Kingitanga movement
founded decades earlier in another region of Polynesia, the Mau did not simply reject colonial authority, but created its own institutions to take the place of palangi power. Supporters of the Mau witheld taxes from the colonial government in Apia, and ignored the commands of the colonial police force. A well-organised Mau government was established at Vaimoso, a village beyond the southern edge of Apia, and policemen adorned in the blue and white colours of the Mau were soon seen throughout the colony. When New Zealand officials tried to leave Apia to investigate the rebellion they often found the roads blocked by huge logs and nationalists wielding clubs.
Mass arrests failed to quash the movement, and by the time Margery Perham arrived in Apia in December 1929 the contradiction between the New Zealand state and the shadow state created by Samoans had become, for the colonists at least, intolerable. A few days after Perham's departure from Samoa, New Zealand forces would open a new phase in the struggle by turning a machine gun on a peaceful Mau march through Apia and killing eight men, including the movement's leader, the high chief Tamasese Lealofi. Samoans still refer to December the 28th, 1929 as Black Saturday
Early in 1930 hundreds of New Zealand marines arrived in Apia, and began a series of raids on pro-Mau villages in Upolu and Sava'i, Samoa's two main islands. As the nationalists hid in the bush and mountains, their fale were looted and burned. There were more shootings of unarmed Samoans, and the colonial forces even attempted a primitive air war against the Mau, by flying planes low over the interior of Upolu, and letting marines empty their revolvers into the bush.
But years of repression failed to defeat the Mau, and after the election of New Zealand's first Labour government in 1936 the movement was legalised. Samoa became independent in 1962.
Perham's account of her time in Samoa is both fascinating and infuriating. With its relentlessly jolly, relentlessly superior tone and its frequent salutes to the glories of the British Empire, her diary reads a little like the prose of Enid Blyton or Captain WE Johns. Perham seems to have seen Samoa's crisis as the opportunity for an awfully big adventure, and her excitement often made her recklessly insensitive. Shortly after her arrival in Apia she decided to take a walk, and soon found a road into the countryside:
I found that some trees had been felled blocking the road. I clambered over them. This obstacle appeared several times. I went on. One or two Samoans passed. They stared at me as if surprised but ignored my greeting. This seemed to me very odd for this courteous people. I went on further. I noticed that one or two of the men were wearing a navy-blue lava-lava with some white bands round the bottom, rather like our hockey skirts at Oxford. At last I came upon a large, round, open-sided hut rather like a bandstand. Inside a circle of men were sitting, all with the navy-blue banded skirts. I waved and shouted a greeting. They all turned around and stared at me but made no reply. So, feeling snubbed as well as puzzled, I turned around and walked disconsolately back...
What Perham describes is an unwitting visit to the Mau capital in the village of Vaimoso. The 'bandstand' at the centre of the village was the movement's parliament, and the men meeting there were likely some of the most senior chiefs in Samoa.
On another occasion Perham attempted to drive out of Apia late at night. Coming to a junction in the road, she noticed 'many torches', and then a crowd of Samoans 'standing beside logs, and ready to roll them' in her way. Perham had reached a Mau checkpoint, where she was stopped and questioned before being sent on her way. Writing up her diary the next day, she admitted being 'pretty hot' at having to 'submit' to the authority of the nationalists.
Perham had as little regard for colonial hierarchy as she did for fa'a Samoa, and during her time in the islands she regularly buttonholed senior Kiwi administrators, asking them to describe and justify their policies.
But Perham's relentless curiosity did not bring her many insights into the crisis in Samoa. Although her diary criticises Samoa's administrators, she shares their imperiocentric worldview. Here is her account of one of her discussions with administrators:
We went on to ask, '
Ought these Polynesian people be preserved? ..Apparently strong and beautiful, they wither away before Western pressures. Long isolated in their islands...they have had no reason to contrive and struggle, still less to reason. Nowhere in the world is life easier, that is why they sing and put hibiscus behind their ears. But now we have caught them in the net of the world economic system, and their beautiful leisure is menaced by the hunger of the Western markets for coconut oil and by the bee-like perserverance of the imported Chinese...We decided in the end to save the Polynesians, partly on moral grounds and partly because we must still regard the charge of economic worthlessness not proven.
In this passage and many others in Pacific Prelude
, Perham creates a dichotomy
between Western-style modernisation and a sort of primitive stasis, and suggests that one or the other condition must be the fate of every society. She has no inkling of the complexity and fluidity
of pre-contact Samoan society, or of the extensive contacts
between the Samoans and other Pacific peoples in ancient times. Perham can only suggest, as a solution to Samoa's crisis, asking 'the expert, England' to add 'this small concern' to her vast imperial 'business'.
It is perhaps not surprising that Perham found the Mau incomprehensible. With its rural basis, its chiefly leadership, and its insistence that Samoans are capable of governing and developing their own nation, the movement could not be assimilated to her worldview. Instead of engaging seriously with the Mau, Perham dismisses it in her diary as the work of a 'difficult people' with 'an inflated sense of their own importance'. Such a people requires the careful but firm governance that only Britain can provide.
Perham showed the same habits of mind when she arrived in New Zealand at the beginning of 1930. After docking at Auckland, hitch hiking to Ngaruawahia, where she interviewed Princess Te Puea, and carrying on to Hamilton, where she found the locals 'as English-looking a crowd as you could find out of England', Perham caught a bus into the Ureweras with a group of Presbyterian missionaries. After a journey over mud roads and through a bushfire, she found herself at Te Whaiti, where 'dark, full-blooded...disreputable-looking aborigines' lived in 'hovels', and seemed wholly innocent of the English language.
As she met followers of 'Rewa' Kenana and learned, with the help of bilingual Maori and Pakeha missionaries, of the prophet's rejection of Pakeha authority, Perham realised that she had once again found herself on the frontier of Anglo-Saxon civilisation. 'I had never realised there such wild parts of New Zealand', she told her diary.
Perham's discussion of Maori Christianity and its links to anti-colonial resistance is a stew of snobbish misconceptions:
They told me of the prophet Rewa...at Maungapohatu he has built a great temple and a great pa...a last fool's paradise for his race. This is only one of several Maori sects. At Te Puea's place when I asked what sect their church was, they said, our own Maori sect, a
hau-hau Church. I believe this is connected with the last Maori war, the Hau-Hau, when, in a reversion to a sort of biblicized savagery, the Maori went into war barking like dogs,
hau-hau. (Incidentally a better interpretation of bark than our bow-wow?)
It is easy to laugh, today, at Margery Perham's Anglophilia. It is worth asking, though, how free we really are from some aspects of her worldview. We may no longer want the world to be run by ruddy-faced Englishmen in pith helmets, but how far have we journeyed, in the twenty-first century, from Perham's imperiocentric disdain for small nations on the fringes of modernity, and from her dichotomy between capitalist development and ahistorical stagnation?
This month the world has gained a new unrecognised state, as the forces of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) have taken control of the northernmost two-thirds of Mali, raising their flag in the cities of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. The MNLA's victories came during the latest stage in a decades-long war for independence by Mali's Tuareg minority. The Tuareg are a Berber people who have traditionally lived by herding and smuggling in the Sahara.
After the so-called 'Congo conference' held in Berlin in 1884, at which European powers divided up Africa into colonial possessions, the Tuareg found themselves a part of the French territory of Western Sudan, which stretched from the deserts north of Timbuktu and Gao to the fertile flood plain of the Senegal River in the south. In 1960, when West Sudan became the politically independent nation of Mali, the Tuareg demanded a state of their own. They have complained, in the decades since independence, of discrimination at the hands of the populous south of Mali. Although Mali has been a democracy for most of the last two decades, its constitution prohibits Tuareg from forming their own political party, and from agitating for any sort of self-government.
Now, in the aftermath of a shambolic military coup in the south of the country, the fighters of the MNLA have driven and ridden out of their desert bases and taken control, for the first time, of all of the historic territories of Mali's Berbers. The international response to their declaration of independence has been hysterical. France and other Western nations have condemned Azawad as an affront to 'regional stability', and a dozen or so African nations, including powerful Nigeria, have vowed to help the Malian state reconquer its lost northern possessions.
For both Western and African governments, the borders given to Africa one hundred and twenty-eight years ago at the Congo Conference are apparently sacrosanct, despite the fact that they were drawn up without any African input, and cut across ancient ethnic and linguistic boundaries.
The pious defence of nineteenth century borders by diplomats and politicians has been matched, over recent days, by an outpouring of mockery toward Azawad in the Western media. Under the sarcastic headline 'All Hail Azawad', New York Times
columnist Frank Jacobs
suggested that 'noone quite knows' where Azawad's borders are, and laughed at the pretensions of the Tuareg. In the US-based International Business Times
, Palash R Ghosh was even more dismissive, describing Azawad as a 'non-existent state in a desolate, poverty-stricken wasteland'
For analysts like Jacobs and Ghosh, Azawad is a perversely centrifugal enterprise. By seceding from an African state that was already obscure and marginalised, the Tuareg people are isolating themselves from the centres of twenty-first century economic and political power. Do they not realise how difficult they are being, and what a false sense of their own importance they have? It is certainly instructive to read the denunciations of the new state of Azawad alongside the diary Margery Perham created more than eighty years ago.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]