Monday, September 08, 2014

Olaf Nelson, Kim Dotcom, and other tricky comparisons

In his superbly grumpy essay 'The Peculiarities of the English' EP Thompson complained about historians who judged events in Albion according to how closely they resembled events in other, more fashionable countries, like France and the Soviet Union. 

Thompson's essay was prompted by a couple of young and cheeky Marxists, who had pointed out that England had never experienced the sort of revolutions that upended French society in 1788 and Russian society in 1917, and had argued that it was therefore a backward place more or less devoid of a tradition of radical thought and action. 

Thompson insisted that England had its own, distinctive revolutionary history, which can't be understood through the prism of Russian or French reality. After rubbing his rivals' noses in events like the English Civil War and movements like Chartism, though, the great historian suddenly pulled up and acknowledged, near the end of his essay, that it wouldn't do to imagine that the history of every society was unique. Comparisons between different societies, events, and people were, Thompson hurriedly admitted, essential: the trick was to find a balance between acknowledging the individuality of a society or event or person and finding illuminating parallels for them. 

If the mighty EP Thompson struggled with the art of comparisons, then I probably have little hope of placating the anonymous reader of this blog who complained about the link I made a couple of months ago between Olaf Nelson and Kim Dotcom

Olaf Nelson was a part-European businessman who grew rich under the protection of the administrators of the German colony of Western Samoa. After 1914, though, when New Zealand invaded and annexed Western Samoa and began to crack down on the Nelson family business, Olaf became a sincere, relentless, and crafty activist for Samoan independence, and a critic of colonialism in general. 

My blog post suggested that Dotcom had undergone the same sort of radicalisation as Nelson, after being persecuted by the New Zealand state. By mating up with Hone Harawira and Annette Sykes Dotcom had become, like Nelson before him, an ally of an indigenous people calling for the decolonisation of their country. 

Here's the dialogue I had with my critic, after he or she showed up at the end of last month. 


Your article lacks fact regarding OF Nelson. His father was Swedish not Scandinavian. Secondly, Nelson considered himself a samoan and was motivated by his love for his country as well. Our people were fighting for independence from assholes who thought they were better than us. To liken him to Dot Com is an insult. Errors in your information on Nelson illustrates your lack of knowledge


Sweden is part of Scandinavia, so I don't think I'm being inaccurate when I use the term. I agree that Nelson considered himself Samoan, and that Samoans were fighting for independence from racist assholes.

I don't mean to make an exact parallel between the lives and qualities of Nelson and Dotcom. I think Dotcom is a buffoon with deplorable taste in all sorts of things, so it wouldn't take much to convince me that Olaf Nelson was a much more admirable person than him. 

But I think that Nelson, like Dotcom, was a very successful businessman who was politicised and radicalised when New Zealand authorities began to persecute him. Like Dotcom, he turned his wealth and his business acumen against the government that tormented him. To that extent, I think there's a parallel between the two men. 


Most Swedes don't consider themselves Scandinavian. Anyway my main issue is your comparison of the man. The fact that there are similarities in their wealth and the avenues used to get their point across by no means warrants a "parallel" as you have done. There are 1 or 2 similarities in their situation (finance, physical size) and that's about it. A country was fighting for Independence and he was a member of a movement that played a key role in it. He was not alone in his plight. What is Dotcom fighting for? I think you should look more at the differences. How do you think Nelson's family feel about this comparison. I think you have taken a few things out of context and done a very lazy piece of work.


Surely Dotcom, like Nelson before him, has thrown his weight behind an indigenous anti-colonial movement? He's allied himself with the Mana Party in the same way that Nelson joined himself to the Mau. 

I know many members of Mana, and while they obviously wouldn't make a direct parallel with Samoa, they consider New Zealand a colonial nation and Maori a still-colonised people. Hone Harawira's calls for the decolonisation of government and the legal system recall some of the demands of the Mau. 

It's also notable that Mana and its alliance with the Internet Party has won some high-profile support within New Zealand's Pasifika communities. King Kapisi has been happy to introduce and praise Kim Dotcom at Internet-Mana rallies in Auckland. I don't think he'd be offended by comparisons between Mana and the Mau, and comparisons between Dotcom and Nelson. I don't think the descendants of Nelson need to be either, because as I said earlier I'm not implying that Nelson had Dotcom's buffoonish personal qualities - I'm talking about his political career.

Are you sure that Swedes don't consider themselves Scandinavian? The Scandinavian peninsula is the bit of Europe occupied by Norway and Sweden. When people talk about a wider Scandinavian region they seem to throw Denmark, Iceland and sometimes Finland into the mix as well. 


Now you are an idiot. Dotcom is not a Maori and Nelson considered himself a Samoan. Nelson had the ways and means to assist in fighting for the freedom of his country and did so. What role does King Kapisi play in history and in the Mau? As far as I'm concerned you are now just grasping for ammunition and finding as much as you can from people who you think will agree with you to solidify your rubbish ideas. Stick to the point at hand. Say what you will about the motives of Nelson in order to color your document.

Stop trying to be an intellectual. You lack an in-depth understanding of what really happened in Samoa and with O.F Nelson. Find someone else to compare Dotcom to. Hint. Find someone who wasn't born in that country for a start and who didn't actually consider themselves part of it.. ppff.


Surely it's possible for someone to disagree with your interpretation of history, anon, without being an idiot? I've pointed out a series of similarities that I perceived between Olaf Nelson and Kim Dotcom. Both were wealthy men with deep roots in European cultures who enjoyed prosperity in the South Pacific before being persecuted by New Zealand authorities, who were acting at the behest of a faraway imperial power. 

Both men responded to that persecution by becoming politicised and identifying themselves with local movements against New Zealand colonialism. Both used their wealth and acumen to support those movements and create trouble for the New Zealand authorities. 

You've pointed out some differences between Nelson and Dotcom. Nelson was born in Samoa, whereas Dotcom was not born in Aotearoa; Nelson was an afakasi who identified as Samoan, whereas Dotcom is a Pakeha. Those are good points. But I don't see how they invalidate the comparison I made. 

To make a comparison isn't to claim an exact equivalence.

You're obviously offended by the Nelson-Dotcom comparison, but I'm not sure exactly why. Is it because you thought I was downplaying the fact that Nelson had Samoan blood, by comparing him to a palangi? Or is it because you think Dotcom is too cynical and venal and buffoonish to compare with Nelson? 

Perhaps you should write something about the qualities that you think Nelson has, and which Dotcom lacks. I'd be happy to put that up as a guest post. 

I mentioned King Kapisi because he's someone who is very aware of Samoan history and is strongly supportive of Dotcom. I'm not saying that you have to agree with him; I just mention him because he demonstrates that not everybody agrees with your view that Dotcom and the cause he has embraced are the antithesis of the Mau.

I guess one key difference between us relates to Nelson's attitudes to the German administrators of Samoa in the years before 1914. I suggested that he had good relations with Solf's colonial regime, and profited from these good relations, and that he only became a strong nationalist after being disadvantaged by the new Kiwi regime. 

You seem to be suggesting that he was a lifelong nationalist, because of his birth in Samoa and his identification as a Samoan. 

What was Nelson's attitude toward the Mau movement when it first emerged in 1909? Did he support it as ardently as he supported the later Mau opposition to New Zealand rule? 

If Nelson was a strong supporter of the Mau in 1909, then my claim that he was a hitherto apolitical businessman who was radicalised by New Zealand persecution would look very shaky. But I'm not sure whether Nelson was a supporter of the Mau in 1909. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

What's happening re the cave and the film. On hold now because of the new arrival?

1:11 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

yeah, sorry - have had to put it off, because of baby and also Paul's concerns about safety and avoiding tapu. I'll flick you his phone number by e mail, because you may be able to help him, given your first-hand experiences in - was it? - '81.

9:58 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I and a (Rarongan born) Forman - one Tony TeAwhitu - on the then Post Office (now Telecom or Chorus) decided to go into a cave he had heard about somehow. We just put overalls on and went in a little way. I think we decided against going further. Discretion was, in that case, and many others in my life, much more that the better part of valour...

It could be dangerous so more to the point might be a symbolic reading outside or something.

I am still not sure it is the cave in question, there may well be many others. Tapu will be an issue also, not something we thought of at the time. Will contact Paul.

BTW I am (with Jack I think) giving a poetry reading this Saturday the 13th Sept at 2 pm in the Titirangi Library, at the Titirangi Poets group. I now have a vehicle so I can get around. I'll put it on FB again.

All the best for you and the new chap. I now have 4 grandson's with a recent arrival. A friend of mine has 10 grandchildren!

All this generation..."the infant bearing seas..."

10:39 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing you think this exchange makes you look good. In general you need to stop speaking on behalf of Maori & Polynesians. Nz is a colonized nation, you're the coloniser not the representative of people you colonised. All your posts are like this & it's a problem.

4:38 pm  

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