5 Jun 2024

Cutting strings in the Pacific

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 5 June 2024

Far away powers have strategic and economic reasons for hanging on to their colonies in the South Pacific


When the sun rose over the islands of Samoa on 1 January 1962, it brought with it the dawn of a new era: independence. 

Samoa officially celebrates its independence on 1 June every year and this week Samoans all over the world proudly hoisted its flag to commemorate its 62nd anniversary. 

Today on The Detail, we look at Samoa, but also at the host of other Pacific nations still ruled from afar - from France, the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand - and ask what their chances are of achieving independence too. 

In the lead up to achieving its sovereign status, Samoa had been under the administration of New Zealand, which seized the islands from Germany in 1914. 

Distrust and dissatisfaction among the Samoans towards New Zealand's authority quickly intensified, and it peaked when the cargo ship SS Talune arrived in Apia from Auckland on 1 November 1918. Passengers on board were carrying the strain of pneumonic influenza and New Zealand administrators failed to quarantine the ship and instead allowed the sick passengers to disembark. 

The rapid spread of influenza among the local people resulted in the deaths of 8500 people - 22 percent of Samoa's population, most of them elderly or young children.

This prompted a revival of an independence campaign in the late 1920s and gave rise to an organisation known as 'O le Mau a Samoa'. Its slogan 'Samoa mo Samoa' - Samoa for Samoans - conjured up confidence among the Mau members that it was possible for Samoans to fully lead their own country. 

It's hard not to admire Samoa's courageous push towards independence, but it's also worth noting that resistance towards foreign rule was long present even during Germany's occupation. 

The Mau movement's legacy has been proudly memorialised in books, documentaries and even songs. 

Independence movements in the Pacific

Fast forward to the 21st century and the spirit of foreign resistance still lingers in the Pacific. 

In recent weeks the French territory New Caledonia has come under the spotlight as its indigenous Kanak population urges the French president to respect its aspirations towards self-determination. 

Why has the goal of attaining independence for the remaining Pacific territories become increasingly difficult? 

Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan says there's a 'cult of exceptionalism' among colonial powers such as France and the United States. 

"They claim to be upholders of human rights, of democracy, of the rules-based order and yet you see many of them reluctant to accept the mandate of the UN general assembly, the demand for decolonisation which is at the heart of the United Nations project in the 20th century, the movement towards political, economic and social self-government."

However, Maclellan says decolonising the Pacific is not always 'black and white'. 

He says while the vast majority of indigenous populations in Pacific colonies seek independence, there are those who want to maintain ties.

Some argue that severing ties to former colonial powers would mean the loss of entitlements such as trade, educational opportunities, law and order. 

The idea of 'inter-dependence' as seen with the Cook Islands and Niue who are self-governing in free association with New Zealand, has also sparked growing interest with other Pacific territories. 

"Some countries are willing to trade away full sovereignty because of advantages they get over aid, migration rights, defence and security pacts but are those chosen or those forced upon people?" he asks. 

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