Today in History: 28 December 1929 Black Saturday

Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III lying in state, 1929 (Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-0691-1).

28 December 1929 – Black Saturday.

The worst incident in New Zealand’s relationship with Samoa occurred on Saturday 28 December 1929.

New Zealand military police fired on Mau independence demonstrators in Apia, killing 11 Samoans, including the independence leader Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III.

A Mau parade was held along Apia’s waterfront to welcome home two members who had been exiled in New Zealand.

The incident culminated in police opening fire on the crowd, as they attempted to arrest the Mau’s secretary, who was marching in the parade.

The Mau had been warned that such action would be taken if any wanted men marched, and the NZ administration feared for its authority if it failed to carry through on its threat.

The marchers vigorously opposed the arrest attempt, and additional police arrived. As the situation deteriorated, some of the police fired their revolvers at the crowd, and then began retreating towards the police station in a side street, pursued by Samoans. During this movement Constable Abraham was caught and clubbed to death.

As the protesters approached the station, a police sergeant fired a Lewis machine gun from the balcony in an effort to deter them. An experienced machine gunner, he directed the fire over the heads of the crowd. But three other policemen, panicking at the thought that the rioters might get under the balcony and burn the building down with them in it, fired at the crowd with their rifles.

Tragically, this fire mortally wounded the prominent Samoan leader Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III. It also killed Migao, Leota Anese, Tapu, Ainoa, Faumuina of Savai’i, Vele and Tu’ia.

The killing of Tamasese, trying to restrain the crowd at the time he was shot, left a deep sense of grievance amongst Samoans.

Before his death he urged his people to keep the peace and stop the bloodshed.

But the administration’s actions in the following weeks heightened the conflict.

The administration’s response

Convinced that the Mau had lost heart, Administrator Stephen Allen adopted aggressive measures to ensure its complete collapse. On 13 January 1930, after the Mau refused to give up its headquarters and surrender wanted men, he declared the organisation seditious and the wearing of the Mau uniform illegal.

As many as 1500 Mau men took to the bush. They were pursued by an armed force of 150 marines and seamen from HMS Dunedin, recently arrived from New Zealand, and 50 military police. A seaplane supported military excursions into the bush to hunt down the fugitives.

The people of Samoa supported the Mau by supplying them with food and shelter, and providing reports on New Zealand operations. Marines attempted to prevent such activities by raiding villages, often at night and with fixed bayonets.

The Mau eluded the marines, but by mid-February both sides were showing signs of fatigue. In March, with the assistance of local Europeans and missionaries, Mau leaders met New Zealand’s Minister of Defence and agreed to disperse.

Women’s Mau committee

Brigadier-General Herbert Hart (1931–35) replaced Allen as Administrator in April 1931 and an uneasy stalemate ensued. Men were arrested for showing support for the Mau, so women rallied supporters and staged demonstrations.

A surge in support when Olaf Nelson returned from exile in 1933 was again quickly suppressed with his re-arrest and deportation just a year later in 1934.

Some closure regarding this dark phase of Samoan history occurred in 2002, when New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised for wrongs committed by the colonial administration.

Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III lying in state, 1929 (Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-0691-1).